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New Minters boss Mr 140%

News

Cite as: (2003) 77(9) LIJ, p.30

Newly-appointed Minter Ellison chair Peter Bartlett is facing the challenge of combining his work as a high-profile media lawyer with managing one of the country’s largest firms. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

The buzz and unpredictability of being one of Victoria’s best-known media defamation lawyers is something Peter Bartlett thrives on.

He never knows what legal challenge the next telephone call will bring and he is accustomed to being woken from a deep sleep in the early hours to answer a pressing question from a media client.

“I get a total buzz out of it. It is a magic area of law,” he said.

This is just as well given that his workload recently became even heavier – on 1 July, Mr Bartlett, aged 55, also took on the role of chair of the Minter Ellison Legal Group.

“It is a huge working portfolio,” he said of his new dual role at Minter Ellison. “I have a very active practice and the chair’s role requires significant input.”

The initial expectation was that he would split his time 50/50 between Minter Ellison’s media practice and the chair’s role.

In reality, he has found his overall workload is “140 per cent of what I used to do – and I used to work more than the average”.

Mr Bartlett admitted some colleagues had concerns about him taking on the two demanding jobs.

“It was a contested election [for national chair]. And there were some partners who had significant concerns as to whether I could time-manage and handle a successful media practice and at the same time fulfil, as it needed to be fulfilled, the role of chair,” he said.

“I am confident that I can do that, but I recognise that it is a challenge.”

It is a challenge that he is clearly revelling in.

“I think I get the best of both worlds because I retain the magic and challenge of a media and communications practice but at the same time I have a direct steering role in the future direction of the firm.”

As head of the firm, he oversees the running of the group’s seven Australian and eight overseas offices.

“I chair national board meetings. It involves setting the agenda for the future of the firm in conjunction with the managing partners and the board and the divisional heads and the practice group heads,” he said.

“It is very much a coordinating role but having a significant input into the future direction of the firm – where we aim to be in two years, five years, 10 years.”

Mr Bartlett said the growth since Minter Ellison formed in 1987 had been “colossal” and it had doubled in size in the past four years.

Recent surveys have said it is one of the best-known firms in Australia, the 15th largest law firm in the world, and the biggest firm in Asia.

Mr Bartlett attributed its success overseas to a policy of undertaking joint ventures or bringing in partners who are familiar with those cities and have a source of work.

He said there were no immediate plans to open any more offices; rather the aim was to increase recognition for the quality service Minter Ellison provided.

“We would say that we are doing that at the present time but we will have more emphasis on continuing legal education and lifting the experience and quality even further than it is at the present time.”

While he acknowledged he will be delegating more within the media group, he will still lead the practice and be directly involved in cases.

He will also remain active in the various committees and organisations he is involved in. These include being International Bar Association Media Committee chair, LAWASIA Communications and Technology Committee chair and Melbourne Press Club vice-president.

The Age, which is part of John Fairfax Holdings Ltd, Australia’s second-biggest newspaper publisher, is one of Mr Bartlett’s clients.

The Age editor Michael Gawenda described Mr Bartlett as a “media junkie”.

“You couldn’t do what he does without loving it,” Mr Gawenda said.

He described Mr Bartlett as being calm and measured when faced with the “dramas that can erupt at any time” in the media business.

“I have never seen him flustered,” Mr Gawenda said.

“One of the great things about Peter is that he’s always looking for a way to publish rather than not to publish.”

Jeff Sher QC said Mr Bartlett was a “very thoughtful and knowledgeable defamation lawyer – with a leaning towards defendants” who obviously loved his work.

Mr Bartlett, explaining his enthusiasm, said: “I think it is the continuing challenge about not knowing what the next phone call is going to bring, not knowing whether you need to drop everything and face the next crisis”.

He is on call 24 hours a day every second week which means calls on weekends and late into the night.

The immediacy of defamation work and the potentially significant damages claims add to the pressure.

“There are time pressures in that you have got to do it reasonably quickly,” he said. “There is no time to sit down and go through textbooks for a couple of hours.

“And every article is different. Every article raises different questions.”

One case Mr Bartlett recalled as an “absolute adrenaline rush” was in 1981 when the commonwealth government sought an injunction against The Age in the early hours of the morning in an attempt to restrain the publication of Department of Foreign Affairs documents.

“I had to go into The Age at 1am and we changed the front page five times that night. Then I had to brief counsel on the Saturday and brief Jeff Sher QC,” he recalled.

“We flew to Canberra on the Monday and we were before the High Court each of the next five days and then had a largely great victory.”

Other cases he recalled include:

  • acting for the widow of Griffith anti-drug campaigner Donald McKay at the royal commission into his death;
  • rushing to the Federal Court to get an injunction against the Australian Federal Police who raided The Age seeking documents from investigative reporters;
  • acting for the ABC in an appeal against a decision awarding athlete Ron Clarke and another plaintiff nearly $1.1 million in damages for defamation. The case was settled with repayment to the ABC of about $600,000;
  • representing SBS in defamation proceedings brought by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe; and
  • defending Qantas against deep vein thrombosis claims. Minter Ellison is defending more DVT cases against airline carriers than any other law firm in the world.

Mr Bartlett, who completed his law degree at Monash University, did articles with Gillott Moir & Winneke in 1972 and became a partner in the firm in 1974. The firm amalgamated with Ellison Hewitson Whitehead (Melbourne) and Minter Simpson (Sydney) in 1987 to form Minter Ellison.

A father of five children aged between 16 and 22 years, Mr Bartlett has had to juggle family life and work over the years.

He described his new balancing act between his two roles as another challenge to face, and by no means his last.

“I am nowhere near retirement so to that degree I will always be looking for new challenges ... and I need new challenges,” he said.

Minter Ellison Legal Group

Offices
Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, Gold Coast
New Zealand – Auckland, Wellington
Asia – Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta
UK – London
US – San Francisco

Number of lawyers
More than 1400 lawyers practising in Minter Ellison Legal Group offices around the world (i.e. more than 280 partners and 1200 lawyers). Total workforce (lawyers and support staff) of about 2700 people.

Turnover
In excess of A$400 million.

Expertise
The firm operates under an international legal divisional structure:

  • corporate – including advisory, anti-trust, communications, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, media, regulatory, revenue, securities and technology;
  • finance – including asset and project finance, capital markets (debt and equity), derivatives, securitisation, trusts and investment funds;
  • construction, engineering and infrastructure;
  • dispute resolution – including international commercial arbitration, commercial litigation, corporate reconstruction, insolvency and insurance;
  • human resources and employee benefits; and
  • real estate – including environment and planning.

Recognition

  • ranked 15th in the “Global 100”, a ranking of the world’s largest 100 law firms prepared by the UK’s Legal Business and American Lawyer;
  • ranked largest legal group in Asia by Asian Legal Business;
  • ranked second in Business Review Weekly’s Top 20 Australian law firms survey;
  • lawyers named among the world’s pre-eminent lawyers in project finance, mergers and acquisitions, insolvency and reconstruction, labour and employment, litigation, technology, media and telecommunications by Euromoney Legal Media Group’s Expert Guides;
  • key adviser on the deal selected as “Oil and gas project financing deal of 2002” by the respected Project Finance International magazine;
  • key adviser on Australia’s largest-ever export deal and one of the Top 10 deals in Asia of 2002 – the A$25 billion contract to supply LNG from the North West Shelf to China’s Guangdong Terminal project; and
  • winner of the 2003 Australian Law Award in the commercial litigation category.

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