The Legal Elite: Christensen builds on fortunate start

LEE Christensen’s professional fate was decided when he was articled to Ron Harmer, the guru of insolvency law, in 1982.

Mr Christensen has never looked back from that point, specialising in insolvency law and becoming recognised as the number one practitioner in the field.

He is now a partner at Tottle Christensen, which has carved out a successful niche as a boutique litigation practice.

Mr Christensen acknowledges that he got off to a good start after university by joining McCusker & Harmer, whose partners were Malcolm McCusker – ranked as WA’s top barrister in the Legal Elite survey – and Mr Harmer.

“I was very fortunate to have that training, I couldn’t have had two better teachers,” Mr Christensen said.

His next big break came in 1984, when Mr Harmer left legal practice to run an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into insolvency law.

Mr Christensen inherited Mr Harmer’s client base and from that time got to know the likes of Garry Trevor, now a senior partner at Ferrier Hodgson and one of Perth’s most prominent receivers and liquidators.

Mr Christensen moved on to national law firm Phillips Fox before linking up with former Clayton Utz partner Paul Tottle to form Tottle Christensen in 1997.

Tottle Christensen has grown to the point where it has 45 staff, and Mr Christensen is keen to ensure it does not resemble one of the big firms.

“We try to run it differently,” said Mr Christensen, who clearly has no liking for the management and bureaucracy that comes with being in a large national firm.

“Most of our partners are refugees from the big firms.”

Tottle Christensen has so far managed to avoid appointing a managing partner or a formal office manager, preferring instead to run on a collegiate system.

Mr Christensen believes the firm’s size and low overheads gives it a competitive edge, with a charge-out rate that he estimates is about two thirds that of the big firms.

This can be particularly helpful in insolvency matters, where many clients have strict funding constraints.

“I’ve seen some marvellous litigation that would have won lots of money, but the creditors didn’t have the money to pursue the matter. That’s why litigation funders are probably a good idea,” he said in reference to groups that provide money to creditors in return for a share of any payout.

Mr Christensen’s long client list includes St Barbara Mines, Tuart Resources and Games ‘R’ Us. He also acted for property magnate Bill Wyllie in a dispute with Warren Anderson.

“That was a large intensive job that we managed to deal with,” he said.

The field of insolvency law involves a mix of commercial and court work, and Mr Christensen is no exception.

“Some weeks you are always racing off to court,” he said.

“Other times you’re writing opinions and giving advice. And some times you do a lot of preparatory work and end up settling out of court.”

A lot of the court work relates

to what Mr Christensen describes as “preliminary skirmishes and technical rulings”.

“Some clients want their day in court, but there isn’t that much bloody minded litigation,” he said.

“Litigation has become more expensive.

“A good commercial outcome is always the best outcome.”

Mr Christensen sums up his view by quoting an old saying: “No-one wins a fight. There are only different degrees of losing.”

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