Martin Downing – HWL Ebsworth Lawyer

Martin is the type of lawyer you go to when you want someone you can rely on to tell it as it is, show you the way forward and have your back in a contest.  He has been in the game for more than 25 years and knows how it works.

His practice is and has always been based in the Sydney CBD where he primarily focuses on commercial property with a particular expertise in commercial, industrial and retail leasing.  Martin is joint NSW Group Head of the national property group of HWL Ebsworth.

His clients are a select group of successful corporates, funds and families for whom he has provided advice and guidance over many years and in many instances, for nearly 20 years.

Martin has a Master of Laws from the University of Sydney and is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors as well as being a commissioned officer in the Australian Army Reserve (retired) and a member of the NSW Commercial Office Committee of the Property Council of Australia.

Over the years Martin has sat on and/or chaired a number of boards and is currently on the board of the vehicle that owns and operates the on-line services market place website serviceseeking.com.au, which he co-founded in 2007.

Martin lives on Sydney’s North Shore, is married to the love of his life and has 3 great kids.

For more information on Martin see hwle.com.au or his profile on Linkedin.

Describe yourself in 3 words: Insightful, Diligent, Interested. 

What is your life motto?  “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I come from a family of lawyers so there wasn’t a lot of soul searching about what I was going to do when I left school.  I went straight into Sydney University Law as soon as I left school.

For various reasons my dream was to become a barrister and so a combined degree seemed like a waste of time.  After Law School, I joined Corrs Pavey Whiting & Byrne (now Corrs Chambers Westgarth) and worked in their litigation department for about 3 years.  It soon became apparent to me that a life of litigation was going to be a life of constant conflict and negativity and I felt I needed to try something else.  I took 8 months off to travel Europe and come to terms with the fact that litigation was not my bag.

When I returned from Europe, I rejoined Corrs in the corporate commercial group for a couple of years before moving into their commercial property team.  It was in 1992 that I realised that I needed to be in a smaller more boutique environment to nurture some of my client contacts and provide a home for my father’s practice, who was contemplating retirement at about that time.  It was then that I started to gather the client relationships and develop the client skills that have served me well since and which I continue to hone to this day.  What I found was that when the client relationship was mine the desire to succeed intensified exponentially and, of course, this had a positive effect on those relationships and my practice grew from there – mainly by referral.

In essence, the first 10 years of my career were knowledge acquisition and the balance has been refining and developing those skills through constant practice and application.

It is hard to pin-point when I achieved success if, indeed, I have compared to others. However, the path to my current status did start to emerge from the undergrowth at the time I began to realise that I actually had all the tools at my disposal to deal with most commercial legal issues.  Confidence flowed from that realisation and with it came the ability to back my own judgement and see more clearly where things actually lay and, more importantly, where they would likely end up.  This realisation occurred in the early to mid 90s, after about a decade of practice – the law is a hard task master!

How many hours did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? Countless.  In fact, I have spent most of my life trying to keep the edge sharp and continue to do so.  Law is not really something you can neglect.  I did my Masters during the 90s and I lectured in law for a number of years for the AICD.  I have delivered seminars and I constantly read up-dates and journals.  There is no avoiding this task if you want to keep abreast of the dramatic changes occurring in society and the way we do commerce.

You can never really switch off from your practice.  You may work a 50 or 60

hour week in the office but client issues, strategies and projects are never far from your thoughts when you leave.  Indeed, some of the best thinking is done outside the office while you clip the camellias.  After a while your practice can tend to dominate your life and so you need to make sure you have appropriate breaks – away from communication devices, if you can bring yourself to do it!

Describe how difficult the business really is? It is extremely difficult in the early years.  I don’t know the statistics, however, I would venture to suggest that the proportion of first year law students that make it to partner of a commercial law firm is extremely small.  There is a high attrition rate (even at university) as people realise that it is not all LA Law, Ally McBeal or Boston Legal but instead is a hard and tedious slog at times.

Once you get through university, the rude awakening occurs.  When you enter your first law firm, you realise that after all that effort you know little if anything of any real use to anyone with a cheque book and you begin to wrestle with the practical application of the law to commercial reality.  In the process, you make plenty of mistakes and suffer a number of embarrassments.  However, after a while you begin to get it and once this starts to happen and the fog begins to clear it becomes increasingly easier to make it all fit together.  You need to make mistakes and suffer the embarrassment to learn and you also need good teachers to guide you.

The other difficulty these days is that law is now so broad and comprehensive and is changing so rapidly in all areas that it is now virtually impossible to be a generalist lawyer with any degree of comfort.  I would say that all lawyers need to find a niche that suits and interests them and, as importantly, has a future.

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? One Christmas eve many, many moons ago I was the only lawyer available to do an exchange on a significant commercial property.  The exchange had been delayed and it was late afternoon when I attended.  It was one of those hot still Sydney summer afternoons and the lawyer’s office that I attended was in an old building without air-conditioning.  The other lawyer was an experienced campaigner and I was the green hotshot.  The contracts were large and detailed.  The contracts ended up not being properly exchanged because 1 page was missing from one contract.  Neither of us picked this up.  The other side later tried to take advantage of the situation.  I told my supervising partner and his advice was for me to become conversant with all aspects of the law on the issue and then ring the client, own up and advise them of their rights.  Whilst the client was less than pleased about the error they were appreciative of the immediate and pro-active response in developing a strategy to deal with the issue.

The lesson learnt was to accept that mistakes happen and to act honestly and courageously in declaring them and resolving them.  I have realised over the years that clients accept that things do go wrong occasionally.  It is not the mistake that defines you but how you deal with it.    

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? Stop dwelling on what might have been and what might be and starting focussing on the now.

Lawyers tend to over analyse.  Whilst this is a good skill for the practice of law it is not necessarily a good life skill.  All too often lawyers can find themselves stuck oscillating between the past and the future or caught in others’ lives and issues.  In some instances you can become part of the play you are critiquing.

The danger is that you can become more and more removed from social and commercial reality and thus end up marginalising yourself.  It is therefore important to reassess and reflect every now and then by stopping the process and taking a good look around.

In your mind, is formal training essential? In my work formal training is absolutely essential.  Indeed, it is a prerequisite.  Having said that, formal training is only one aspect of what is essential to being successful in the law.

The other important aspect is experience.  The best sort of experience is on the job experience dealing directly with clients and client issues.

I believe that commercial lawyers should have experience in litigation so they can see how easily their “brilliant” drafting can be attacked and fractured by those trained to do so.  Lawyers need to learn to think twice before they believe that the clause that they threw together at 1.30 that morning will withstand too much scrutiny.

It is also important that commercial lawyers experience commerce.  I believe that having been involved in running a business, sitting on boards and investing in businesses brings a greater depth to my approach as a commercial lawyer.  I have sat on and chaired a number of boards; invested in a number of start ups; and managed a legal firm for 5 years.  These experiences have assisted and continue to assist me in understanding the issues faced by many of my clients.   

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? In my view, having a mentor is extremely important in all careers.  I have had many different sorts of mentors throughout my career and have also been a mentor to others.

On a number of occasions I have become too close to my work or the issues of the day to see the wood for trees.  In many instances my family were not equipped to help or were too involved to do so.  It is at these times that I needed a mentor to provide a dispassionate view on things.

Obviously, in my early days my mentors were senior lawyers in the firms in which I worked, my dad or external lawyers.  Over time, my needs moved away from the need for guidance within the legal system and became more oriented towards commerce, marketing and personal development.

I became associated with the AICD and through my board appointments I have had the benefit of the experience of a number of highly qualified and successful directors and managers.  I have personally invested in marketing advice and am currently working with a business coach.

Of course, many of my clients are a great inspiration to me and I have learned so much from them.  A number of them are very successful businessmen and I have worked with some of them for close to 20 years during which I time I have carefully observed and have greedily absorbed all I could.  I hope they have benefitted as much from my input.

I can’t really go past the efforts of my parents.  Their attempts to imbue an adolescent boy with a thirst for knowledge stood me in good stead for the trials and tribulations that were ahead of me.  I learned that there is always an answer as long as you look hard enough.

What are some steps emerging talent can take to start/further their career? The lawyer who has average skills but can effectively sell themself will always do better than the technically brilliant lawyer who cannot sell.  Unfortunately we now live in a society where the key to success is brand and how well marketed it is.  Perhaps this has always been the case to some extent but never more so than today.

Young people whether they be lawyers or not, need to develop their profile and brand and get it out there if they want to develop a successful career.  When I started it was all about being a lawyer, “putting up your shingle” and waiting for them to come to you.  This is no more.   They won’t come to you unless they know of you and they will never know of you unless you promote yourself.  You need to be heard above all the other noise.  Others in your game are doing it and if you don’t they will win out.  This will be the case even if they aren’t technically as good as you (or so you think).  In reality they all went to the same universities and they can surround themselves with people who make up for any deficiencies they may have.

Invest in your brand and your channels to market.  You can study this or get help from mentors or coaches – either way it is time and money well spent.

What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? My family, friends and clients are the ones who have kept me going through the tough times.  There have been low points and times when things did not go according to plan.  Contrary to what people may believe, law isn’t necessarily a sure path to wealth and happiness.

You need some bedrock in your life to keep you steady or a star to guide you.  I have found these things primarily in my family and a small group of very close friends.

These people offer support or guidance but more importantly they are the people I didn’t want to let down, people for whom I felt a sense of responsibility.

I also have a particularly stubborn nature and I take the attitude of “never giving the bastards an even chance” and certainly never admitting defeat.  I can be extremely patient and bide my time until the opportunity presents and am prepared to act strongly when it does.

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? Not really. Opportunities appear on every road and the trick is to recognise them as opportunities and to grab them when they do.  You can only do that if you open up your mind and train yourself to identify the opportunities.

I believe that the harder we look, the more opportunities come our way.  It is a matter of developing the right frame of mind and maintaining it throughout all the vicissitudes of life.  We can very easily get distracted from the present by getting caught up in planning or dwelling on the past.  Whilst the past and future are important, all opportunities are in the present.  You will only identify them if you are truly in the present.

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