60-second interview with Jim O’Donnell

Monday, 02 November 2020
STEP has been invaluable in giving us the opportunity to raise our profile and to confirm our reputation as experts in our chosen specialist fields, says Jim O’Donnell TEP.

What does your firm or employer do?

Jackson McDonald (JM) is a large, full service commercial law firm in Western Australia with a diverse client base and multi-sector expertise. I represent the firm in private client work, ie tax and succession.

What has STEP done for you, individually, or as an organisation?

JM has a close and special affiliation with STEP. The STEP Western Australia (WA) Branch began in our offices, and we were the first sponsor. JM in turn has benefited greatly from STEP, drawing strength from STEP’s strong reputation, raising the standards of trust and estate practitioners to the highest level, and being a leader in providing practitioners with specialist, practical education and access to a huge network of local and international experts.

Speaking for myself and my colleagues who are also members, STEP has been invaluable in giving us the opportunity to raise our profile and to confirm our reputation as experts in our chosen specialist fields. I have no doubt that our involvement with STEP has led to increased quality client referrals and has contributed to us achieving a variety of awards and recognition as leading lawyers in our sector, including in Doyles Guide and Chambers and Partners High Net Worth Guide.

What is the most important thing STEP does, in your opinion?

I would say raising the standard of trust and estate practitioners through specialist practical education, and by putting a network of other knowledgeable specialists in the same practice areas at our fingertips.

What made you decide to volunteer at STEP?

I joined the WA Branch only about five years after it started. I wanted to play a greater, leadership role in shaping the education of my colleagues and peers who practise in the trust and estate areas. I wanted to take our branch to a new level, to build its member and asset base above and beyond mere survival, to ensure its continued growth, to make it financially solid and secure, and thereby enable our Branch to explore and offer new opportunities, such as full day conferences, to support university prizes in trust-related courses, and to expand our activities into areas such as policy advocacy and reform. I wanted our branch to achieve excellence and to set an example to other branches across Australia to aspire to. I saw our WA Branch become the first to incorporate in Australia. It was also the first to obtain charity status, and income tax exemption.

What would you say to other members considering volunteering?

It can be very rewarding to contribute as a committee member. Our Branch has a range of sub-committees where you can make a real difference, including membership, policy advocacy and reform, CPD events, and newsletter and articles. There are also opportunities to join one of the very interesting sub-committees set up by STEP Australia. Volunteering presents opportunities to exercise your talents and build your skills in a friendly environment by collaboratingwith like-minded peers and colleagues. You will be able to see the outcomes of your efforts directly. It will give you a deep sense of satisfaction by achieving a higher purpose in providing a community benefit, in an area that you already love and enjoy working in.

Your branch has run some online events recently. How did they go, and do you have any recommendations to share?

Our Branch has been running webinars since 2014, long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Western Australia is a big state. We recognised long ago the importance of making our seminars accessible to practitioners in the regions; and also to practitioners with young families who may have commitments which make it difficult to attend seminars, especially in the evening, in person.

It’s important to use good quality computer equipment for webinars – video camera and microphone – with a reliable internet connection and streaming platform. Our recent online events, which were webinar only, have been a great success.

Our first webinar only event in March was on ethics and was well attended and well received. At that event, our Branch Administrator attended physically with the presenter to ensure that the set up was correct and ran smoothly. Although I was not a panellist, I recorded an introduction, which was played at the start. Our AGM in May was webinar only for the very first time. Our Branch Treasurer and Secretary elect were also panellists. It ran surprising smoothly using our online platform and allowed for voting and Q&A with members online.

We have also taken the opportunity to offer our Branch delegates a replay of popular recently recorded presentations, including several sessions from the 2019 STEP Australia Conference. Given that overhead costs for online seminars are low, I would recommend that other branches heavily discount the webinars they provide to their members. So far during the COVID-19 pandemic, our WA Branch is allowing its members to attend webinars at no charge. The money they save this year can help go towards their membership renewals.

Do you have any upcoming events to look out for?

This month we are organising our first face to face seminar since the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed. Steve Cohen will present a seminar on Family Law and Trusts on 24 November, which will be live-streamed online. We’re also holding a Christmas party on 9 December. Our guest presenter will be Supreme Court of Western Australia Registrar Mark Fatharly TEP, a former Chair of STEP Australia and STEP Western Australia.

What do you most like about your job, and what do you feel is most worthwhile?

As a solicitor doing private client work, I get a lot of enjoyment solving difficult client problems and seeing satisfied clients with peace of mind at the end of it all, after I have helped them with their estate planning, or on a tax question, or with their structuring or restructuring, or on a trust or estate matter, transaction or dispute. My involvement with STEP gives me a lot of satisfaction in being part of a team of like-minded volunteers working collaboratively and making real progress.

What would you say to a young person thinking of a career in this industry?

Join STEP as early as possible, start off as a student if you can, or as an affiliate or associate member. Attend STEP seminars and webinars, as that will allow you to build your professional network. Take the opportunity to volunteer, as that will provide an invaluable learning experience. It will also give you direct access to local leaders in the industry. The trust and estate sector provides a wide range of different client and work experiences and learning opportunities. There is so much to learn. It is incredibly diverse. You will never stop learning.

What do you feel are the main challenges facing your organisation/practitioners at the moment, and how will you deal with them?

I would say supporting each other through COVID-19. It’s important to maintain contacts with colleagues and peers using technology, where face to face contact is impossible. We need to be understanding, and be sensitive to tighter cash flows and budgets across firms and clients. With CPD budgets cut, we should try to keep costs low for practitioners to attend the seminars and webinars we offer. We also need to be leaner and meaner in how we deliver our services at a branch root level in order to remain viable.

On top of these, one of the biggest challenges facing STEP is to raise its profile in Australia. While trust and estate practitioners know about STEP, the brand is not well known in the wider professional and business community here. STEP is multi-national, but it’s quite discreet. It flies under the radar. It’s a far cry from brands like Apple, Google or even Vegemite.

Which social media channels do you use and why?

I would say LinkedIn, which has more connectivity to commerce and practitioners.

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Jim O'Donnell
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Jim O’Donnell

Jim O’Donnell TEP is Special Counsel at Jackson McDonald in Perth, Western Australia. He is Chair of STEP Western Australia and chairs its Policy Sub-Committee. Jim serves on STEP Australia’s Jurisdiction Report Sub-Committee and is a former member of STEP Australia’s Policy Sub-Committee.