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The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

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Luke Barrett

Member in the Spotlight allows us to get up-close and personal with some of our ACC Australia members. This week we are shining the spotlight on Luke Barrett, General Counsel at UniSuper and winner of the ‘General Counsel of the Year’ at the 2022 ACC Australia Corporate Lawyer Awards. 

Tell us about your current role. 

My current role sees me leading the legal team at one of Australia’s big superannuation funds. It’s a role which I have loved for a long time. In fact, when I was in private practice, UniSuper was one of my biggest clients, so the relationship goes back a long way. The role is incredibly diverse. At the macro end of the spectrum, the Legal team is involved in designing and refining the ways our retirement products work and the kinds of benefits which people are entitled to when they retire or if misfortune sees them injured. There are a lot of mergers between superannuation funds these days, and we get involved in that too. We also deal with the legal aspects of investing the retirement savings which people entrust us with and the regulatory side of making our investment products available to Australians. At the ‘grass roots’ end of the spectrum, we advise on claims made by Australians when they believe they might be eligible to claim a benefit from their superannuation fund. I must say, I especially enjoy advising on issues under fiduciary law. When your client is a fiduciary, you have a client who is duty bound to act in the best interests of other people, so your role as a lawyer is helping your client act in the best interests of those real humans, making a real impact to the quality of their life, financial security and peace of mind at the times when they need that the most. I find that an especially rewarding aspect of being an inhouse lawyer in an industry of fiduciaries. 

What do you believe is the most important skill an in-house lawyer needs? 

There are a lot of skills that are important. Let’s face it, being really proficient in the areas of law that are most important to your employer is a really good start. I also believe it really helps to be curious and to have an obsession with understanding how your employer’s business really works. In my case, I love understanding how a dollar of superannuation comes to be contributed in the first place, what happens after it is received, how it is aggregated and then invested, how that is accounted for, how finances and cash flows are structured within the fund and how that turns into a benefit back to the person at the end of their working life. As well as being curious, it also helps to be completely happy with being interrupted and for your schedule to be unexpectedly and constantly turned on its head. That happens to me all the time and I love it: I wouldn’t want it any other way! Building effective relationships is essential. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. 

What led you to pursue an in-house legal role? 

For me, it wasn’t originally a choice to become an in-house lawyer in and of itself. For some people it is and they have their compelling reasons. For me, going in-house was initially a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I really enjoy being an adviser to the superannuation industry and I realised a long time ago that in-house practice would be an effective delivery device for the type of legal work that I am passionate about doing. Superannuation legal issues recur continuously throughout the life of a superannuation fund and typically only require the input of a small number of lawyers on any one matter. I think those are two preconditions for an area of specialisation to be directly transferable in-house. Those preconditions may or may not be met, and to differing degrees, for different areas of specialisation. For example, if your area of specialisation sees you advising on matters which typically only ever happen once or twice in the life of a company, and which involve massive teams of lawyers drawn from various areas of specialisation which exceed the likely headcount of a typical in-house team, you might need to think more broadly about what you are hoping to achieve from an in-house role and what your professional goals are. It may well be the right decision for you, but it might be more nuanced than in-house being a place to do lots of the work that you enjoy doing.

You could have asked me why I have stayed in-house so long, and that would have been a different answer! 

What advice would you offer to in-house counsel in building relationships within their organisations? 

In one word: Copernicus. About 500 years ago Copernicus shocked his contemporaries by daring to suggest that not everything revolves around the Earth and that we are not the centre of the universe. He was right and I think there’s something we can all take away from that. 

I believe it is very important to realise, understand and accept that the lawyer and their legal issues aren’t the centre of the business universe and that commercial matters don’t revolve solely around them. The voice of the in-house lawyer is an important voice, but at the end of the day it is only one of several voices and perspectives that inform business decisions. The weightings given to each perspective in a commercial context will change depending on the context. Sometimes the legal perspective legitimately warrants being given a very high weighting; but it is the client that does the giving, not us. Ideally the weighting being given to the legal perspective is an appropriate one: if not, it is an opportunity to think about strategies for building influence. 

What is the one thing a law degree doesn’t teach you about being an in-house lawyer? 


What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed across the legal sector since you joined the profession? 

For a variety of reasons, over the last 20 years a lot of superannuation legal expertise has migrated from the large firms into in-house teams in industry and into smaller or mid-tier firms. That has led to a tectonic shift in where a lot of the superannuation legal work is being done in our industry. I wonder if that has happened in other areas of specialisations too. It was quite remarkable, seeing the tide change like that. Some large firms have been endeavouring to reverse that trend in recent times by targeting specific kinds of matters. Nevertheless, as things stand today, there are various kinds of matters which simply cannot be cost effectively briefed out to firms, or which are simply too interesting or too bespoke to pass on, so in-house can sometimes be the only place where you can get involved in that sort of work, which can be very fascinating, especially for those curious to understand how the whole machine works! 

Finish this sentence… If I wasn’t a lawyer I’d be…  

If I wasn’t a lawyer, I’d be cursing the streaming platforms for killing my other vocational dream! In my dreams, I would love to be the host of a late-night TV talk show. I love talking to people and discovering their stories and this is something which, in a small way, I get to do in my role writing for the print edition of Beautiful Bizarre Magazine, interviewing contemporary surreal artists.  But hardly anybody watches free to air television anymore, and there’s no Australian late night talk shows anyway, so that’s not a very realistic alternative and I would have to think more broadly. I guess I could come up with another nine. Tonight’s top ten list: The top ten things I would be, if I wasn’t a lawyer. Number 10: Getting a refund of my practising certificate fees. Number 9… 

I like being a part of the ACC Australia community because… 

I really love the sense of inclusivity, warmth and kindness of spirit that underpins the ACC Australia community, which comes through so strongly at the national conference. The national conference attracts a large number of in-house lawyers from across Australia and from every imaginable industry. For such a diverse group, it is remarkable how brim full of collegiality the conference is when, at first blush, one might be forgiven for thinking that the differences surpass the common ground in this community. But it turns out that what we have in common as in-house lawyers, and all the shared challenges and opportunities we experience, unite us. We are not alone. It is very refreshing and good for the soul. 


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