DLA Piper partner James Stewart blames the law for driving him to drink. Or at least to making it.
“The year that I turned 40, I had this sense of ‘when am I going to be living the life that I want to live rather than always working towards it’.”
It was 2016 and Mr Stewart was working as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Norton Rose Fulbright’s Melbourne office, and the pull of home was getting stronger.
He had left Tasmania after graduating and had worked in Sydney and Perth so he knew it didn’t matter where he plied his trade. But on a visit home, two school friends and their wives talked about their plans for a boutique gin distillery.
“One was an international brand manager and another ran his own vineyard,” said Mr Stewart.
“They conceived the idea and asked me to be involved, and I thought it could work.”
He and his wife moved back to the Apple Isle with their two young children soon after. They settled in Richmond, a heritage town 30 minutes north of Hobart, and bought a property – with ambitions to run a vineyard – five minutes away.
As part of the move, Norton Rose asked him to start working out of their Sydney office, He rented an office in Hobart and started commuting to Sydney when the need arose. And he got involved in The Splendid Gin project.
“While I was in Perth I realised that I don’t need to be sitting here doing these deals. I don’t even need to be in the country.”
It’s exceeded expectations. Next year, they will start exporting to China and the UK. They will relocate the distillery from Launceston to his vineyard property and run a cellar door. His family is building a house and will live there.
“It gives me an interest in life so I don’t feel I am so defined by being a lawyer,” Mr Stewart said.
“I’ve just planted my [private] vineyard, 11 hectares. I spent a lot of time picking up rocks.”
So when DLA Piper launched a raid on Norton Rose’s M&A practice earlier this year – they would poach five partner and 14 lawyers all up in the most significant move of the current partnership survey – there was one part that was non-negotiable.
“I made it clear from the first approach made to me by DLA Piper that if I were to make a move it would be on the basis that my life/work structure arrangements remain the same. DLA was immediately accepting and welcoming of it, and have in fact embraced it.”
Despite the move home, one thing hasn’t changed.
“I haven’t take my foot off the pedal. It’s a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job being an M&A lawyer.”
But he likes the fact there is “no real routine to my life”.
“It means I don’t get the Sunday night blues about getting on a plane to somewhere or heading into the office.
“When I first started doing it I thought, ‘I’ll just make sure I’m in Sydney every second week’.
“I found that I had to be in Sydney for the next week anyway for a deal.
“So I started to come when I needed to. If I’m working on an intensive deal it might be for three or four days, or eight weeks in a row, Other times it might mean I get a couple of weeks in Hobart.”
While the gin business is thriving, he has no ambitions of doing it full-time.
“I like doing the job as lawyer too much to ever give it away.
“I like being involved in international deals with a brand you know and having a key role in creating what that business is now.”
Mr Stewart says the team has hit the ground running and is “working on some big deals with well-recognised international brands”.
He says it’s high-pressure work, but there is always the joy of knowing he’s not going home to the suburbs.
“I land in Tassie and the stress just lifts off my shoulders.”
There’s another big plus. “I want my kids to feel like they are Tasmanians, and growing up on 200 acres I’d like to think will be an idyllic childhood for them.”