My career story: “I spent five years in London but I moved back home to Australia”

David Kirkland is a Sydney born and based lawyer who currently works in the banking and infrastructure team at Gilbert + Tobin. He moved back to Australia after five years in London with White & Case, then Latham & Watkins.

What’s your background? How and why did you get into law?

My path to the law wasn’t necessarily a pre-ordained one – as with most young (and not so young) boys, I dreamed of doing something much more exciting with my life. However I got the marks to do law and, after much soul searching, I shelved my dreams of a life in the SAS and started down this path.

While studying, I worked for a number of smaller firms. This was to help me cut my teeth, but also to help me figure out whether I had made a massive mistake… thankfully the answer was no.

Once I finished my studies I did my summer clerkship at Henry Davis York and, three years in, made the move to London.

Despite my initial career aspirations, I consider myself extremely lucky and blessed to have had the opportunities I have had and to end up where I am today.

Tell us about your initial move to London. When was that and why did you decide to make the move to the UK? 

It’s fair to say that the path from Australia to London (particularly for transactional lawyers) is a pretty well-trodden path. So it’s no surprise that, after working for three years as a lawyer in Sydney, a number of good friends had already been drawn halfway across the world by the bright lights of London.

Cue 2007 and Maurice Allen and Mike Goetz from White & Case were on a recruitment drive in Australia. While representing a great opportunity, I wasn’t convinced it was the right time to make the move. However, with a bit of prompting from the recruiter, I threw my hat into the ring.

The motivations in making the move were the usual ones – to live in a new city, see the world and earn Sterling. At least I was able to tick two of those boxes!

You arrived at White & Case in London about six months before Lehman Brothers collapsed. What was that period like? Did you ever think you’d made a career mistake by leaving Australia?

Yes that’s right. Actually the first six or so months of my arrival was pretty tumultuous. Firstly David Kirkland, Gilbert & TobinMike and Maurice (the co-heads and spiritual leaders of the finance team) decided it was time to move on to greener pastures shortly after my arrival. To put this in context, I started in February and by mid-March the two partners who had recruited me had already jumped ship. Hard not to take it personally…

Then six months after surviving that little scare, the financial world imploded. I was living out near Canary Wharf at the time (that’s another story…) and so witnessed the carnage first hand. I still remember walking to the DLR and seeing Lehman’s employees leaving the building, boxes in hand. Pretty hard not to question your career (and life) decisions when you see that going on around you.

However thankfully I stayed the course, added restructuring to my skillset, and am still here to tell the tale!

What were the key things you learned in those early years?

Adaptability! In all seriousness though, seeing how many practice areas became irrelevant overnight was a real lesson in the perils of over-specialisation (and the failure to adapt). Subsequently I have been lucky enough to maintain a diverse practice, which I credit to the lessons learnt over my early years in London.

From a practical perspective, being away from home over those first couple of years really taught me to be self-reliant – while you’ve got your friends and colleagues to support you, there’s no real safety net. This was equally as true in the professional context; fair to say it helped me grow up pretty quickly.

Also, in hindsight, the whole London experience was a huge lesson in taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. If I hadn’t accepted the offer from White & Case when I did, and with the credit crunch hiding just around the corner, I may never have had the opportunity to work abroad. Scary when you think about it like that.

You left White & Case for Latham & Watkins in 2010. How did that come about and why did you make the move?

Long story short – the leveraged finance partners at W&C decided to make the move to Latham & Watkins. My options were to either stay behind with a bunch of partners I’d never really worked for, or jump ship to 99 Bishopsgate with the team that I had spent the past two years working for. I chose the latter and the rest is history.

Tell us about the Latham years. What sort of stuff were you working on and how did you feel about your career at that point in time?

The move to Lathams coincided with the emergence of the ‘bank and bond’ financing structures in Europe. Without being too boring, these structures effectively bolted a super-priority working capital facility onto a secured high yield bond issuance. Given Lathams’ pre-eminence in the capital markets space, it was no surprise that our ‘new’ finance team hit the ground running.

How did I feel about my career? To be honest, I felt great about the way things were going. I was working in one of the biggest firms in the world on cutting edge deals, with a team of people that I considered to be an extended family of sorts.

Unlike a lot of firms, Lathams were very active in helping you to manage your career – there was a lot more visibility around progression which was a refreshing change from other firms I had previously worked for. This helped make you feel as though you were a lot more in control of your destiny.

After five years in London, you moved back to Australia in 2013. Why? And had it always been your plan to do a certain period of time in the UK and then move back?

My wife is Australian and so a move back home was always on the cards. Initially I viewed London as a 12-month proposition – I had planned to head across, keep an open mind and make a decision once I got to the end of my first year. Almost five years later I was still there…

I guess what brought the move back home to a head was the birth of our first child in 2012. Having Sophia forced us to re-assess our priorities and make what was a pretty tough decision.

However, the prospect of having a child with an English accent around Ashes time was not an appealing one – in retrospect this probably swung the balance…

How did you go about making the move back? Were there logistical difficulties?

The move back was pretty straightforward – once we made the decision to relocate (which wasn’t an easy one…) the rest fell into place pretty quickly. One thing that really helped was the firm – G+T (who recruited me while I was still in London) were great and made sure it all went seamlessly.

Probably the toughest decision was whether to move our wine ‘collection’ back or to leave it. In the end we split the difference and drank it.

How’s Gilbert + Tobin working out? How does it differ from Henry Davis York, where you started your career? What sort of work are you doing?

Gilbert + Tobin is great – I honestly feel as though I made the best possible decision coming here. Whilst HDY had a strong banking practice, the size and profile of the transactions I now do at G+T is on a different level. Also the breadth of the practice means that I get exposure to the spectrum of financing work – from acquisition financings, to infrastructure deals, to restructurings.

To give you an example, over the past 12 months I have worked on matters ranging from the A$6bn financing of the successful acquisition of TransGrid (the first ‘poles and wires’ privatisation run by the NSW government) to the Arrium restructuring, which is one of the largest corporate restructurings in recent history.

Five years isn’t a hugely long time, but did you find much had changed in the Australian legal market since you’d been gone? What was different, if anything?

It’s funny – five years isn’t a long time in the scheme of things, but things had changed pretty significantly in my time away. The most noticeable trend was the number of local firms which had tied up with international firms. Also, in terms of the natural order of things, some firms (such as G+T) had emerged from being perceived as boutique outfits into top firms in their own right.

Do you know many Aussie lawyers in London still? What’s the feeling among that crowd post-Brexit?

Yep, I still keep in contact with a bunch of Aussie lawyers in London. Some are lifers, and will stay in London for the foreseeable future. Others have probably been shaken a bit by the Brexit vote – I guess it’s one of those milestone-type events that causes people to take stock and assess their position (and priorities). There’s also a bit of a first mover’s mentality among some people who may be getting to the end of their time abroad (which is reflected by the CVs we’re getting across our desks at G+T).

What practical advice would you have for Australian lawyers thinking about moving home?

Time your run and do it for the right reasons. Also make sure you do your homework before you make the move. In my five years away, things in Australian legal market had changed significantly – so make sure you’re across who’s doing what in your chosen area. Also, and just as importantly, what you as a lawyer are looking for from a firm has probably also shifted so make sure you take this into account.

Do you have any thoughts about working in another country has benefited you as a lawyer?

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be the lawyer I am today without my time in London. The volume and nature of the transactions is unlike anything I had ever experienced before (and unlike anything I suspect I would have experienced outside of New York). There are so many great lawyers to learn from, and I really feel as though the experiences that are open to you in a city like London (both professionally and otherwise) are unrivalled.

From an ongoing perspective, my time overseas has also given me the opportunity to tap into the European market as a source of work. This has been a real benefit to my profile at G+T.

What do you miss about London – if anything?

Everything! London is one of those cities that really draws you in. For me, I really miss the people – I made so many great friends over there that it was a really hard decision to leave and leave that part of my life behind. I also miss the sporting scene which was a big part of my time in London. That said, if you asked my wife, she’d probably say the thing she misses most is the shopping…

I am actually heading back in January, and so really looking forward to reacquainting myself with the city (and its pubs).

What’s the best thing about being back?

The sun? In all seriousness, it’s probably family. There’s no substitute for having your loved ones close by.

What’s your plan for the future?

Good question. I have been lucky enough to be involved in some pretty interesting and high profile deals over my time at G+T so I would like to think I am in a decent position to take the next step. If not, then I guess there’s always the SAS, right…?!