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As with Andrew Brown (see link), sport has played a prominent part in Michael Abrahams’ post-Herbert Smith Freehills career – in Michael’s case, his passion for Australian Rules Football. He is general counsel of Essendon Football Club, the “Bombers”, a foundation club of the Australian Football League (AFL). 

It is perhaps surprising that the big Australian rules football clubs have only comparatively recently take on in-house lawyers. Michael, who joined Essendon FC nearly 10 years ago, was among the first of those lawyers. Initially, taken on in the role as integrity officer, he has been GC since 2014.

As with general counsel in any operation, that role involves a wide range of responsibilities – including advising the board of directors on overall risk management – but the focus on a sporting business makes it somewhat different. Michael is involved in all commercial aspects of the club, including negotiating commercial ventures, sponsorship contracts, digital arrangements, advising on consumer issues and managing legal requirements for all the club’s facilities.

Michael has one senior staff member reporting directly to him (a lawyer and risk manager) and there are other shared resources who assist him as required.

As with other Australian rules football clubs, Essendon is a membership club, requiring Michael also to handle membership issues, such as voting in director elections. AFL clubs are governed by a complex  regulatory system, overseen by the AFL. Michael’s role includes advising the club on these obligations.

Where being GC of an Australian rules football club is really different, however, is in the public scrutiny.  Because it is such a popular game (similar, in this respect, to English football), people are interested to know every last thing about the club – not just the sport itself – or, at least, what they read about in the papers and online. 

That puts extra pressure on Michael. “The media are always on the lookout for stories that will feature on the front pages, as well as the back pages, and that means we are always alert to issues that might arouse their interest.  It is said that there are more journalists covering football than politics here. We really are in the spotlight.” 

But the biggest challenge for the club – and this is something beyond Michael’s control – is sporting success. Even though the 18-club league does not have promotions or relegations, the goal is to win the premiership, and (despite a proud and successful history) that is something that Essendon has not done since 2000. That is something everyone in the club is working to achieve. For Michael, it’s a great thrill to be part of a club that means so much to many thousands of people and regularly plays in front of close to 100,000 fans at the MCG.

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Be responsible for yourself and be as good as you can be. Keep learning and grab opportunities as they come up.

Before joining Essendon, Michael was a lawyer connected with another popular sport in Australia – cricket, as legal counsel for the Australian Cricketers Association. The association represents the professional players, both men and women. Michael was involved in negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Cricket Australia, the governing body, among other tasks, including representing players individually in any grievances they might have. This was interesting and satisfying work, not least helping promote the women’s game. The role also involved coordinating with other player associations on issues of common interest. 

Before that, Michael had worked in-house for Vestas, a Danish-owned supplier of wind turbines (so not sport, in this case!).  The opportunity presented itself through another Freehills alumnus and appealed to Michael, who was looking to broaden his skills. Michael was also attracted to working in-house, having done a secondment while at Freehills.

Vestas had business throughout the Asia-Pacific, and the office in Melbourne served as the centre for Australia and New Zealand, as well as most of the Asia-Pacific markets.  As someone who knew very little about wind farms and the power sector generally, it was a steep learning curve for Michael. As contractors, responsible for supplying, installing and maintaining the wind turbines, it was a business operating at relatively high financial risk levels – with pressure for the turbines to operate as much as possible. However, Michael enjoyed the challenge of risk management and also working in a multinational, which required a certain amount of cultural adaptation.

All of which makes his time at Freehills (as was) seem like a long time ago. He joined the firm in 2002,  having done a vacation clerkship. He chose the firm both because he knew of the firm’s reputation as one of Australia’s leading law firms but, just as important, because he was made to feel very welcome.

He was with the firm for four years – working in the Litigation department – and recalls three people in particular having a great influence on his professional development: 
Darren James, a highly able technical lawyer who was always calm under pressure; Rebecca Shepherd, his personal coach; and Peter Holloway, who had the ability to readily identify key issues in any challenging situation and predict how that would turn out. “At difficult times now, I try to channel my inner Peter Holloway!” Michael says, with a laugh.

“What did I take from the firm?,” Michael continues.  “Be responsible for yourself and be as good as you can be. Keep learning and grab opportunities as they come up.”

It was a formative time for him, and Michael stays in touch with many of the others who joined the firm as articled clerks (trainees), of which there were 42 in his year. “We all went through that rite of passage together, and that really helped forge a bond for life.”

As for the rest of his life, Michael lives near the coast, and has access to good beaches, hiking and biking. Much of his down time is spent looking after his young children. And, of course, he follows other sports besides football, including cricket, tennis and – thanks to Netflix- Formula One racing.

Key contacts

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Kym Somers

Alumni Manager, London

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Olivia Troop

Alumni Executive, London

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