Years observing companies “so large that they are almost incapable of proper management” meant giving up a senior role at the competition watchdog to become a class actions lawyer was a logical move for Paul Zawa.
Zawa spent seven years as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission‘s general manager of enforcement for Victoria and Tasmania before joining Phi Finney McDonald this month, so he is used to keeping corporate Australia in check.
“One of the most difficult problems facing the ACCC is figuring out what to take on,” says Zawa.
“That’s where I think the private sphere can pick up; those things where the government agencies don’t have the resources and the funding to do …
“It could be on misleading and deceptive conduct, product safety problems; there’s nothing that would mean class actions is not a relevant tool for those sorts of matters.”
Zawa is working on the GetSwift appeal and is also involved in one of the five claims against AMP: “It’s put me right at the coalface and it’s fascinating, with some hairy issues to work through.”
The firm was established in July 2017 by Ben Phi, Tim Finney and Odette McDonald, who had previously led Slater and Gordon‘s class actions and project litigation practice in Australia and the UK.
“Being a young firm, you need to do things that are going to sustain you,” says Zawa. “So, the focus in the short term was shareholder actions, but in the medium term the firm wants to start branching out to other areas.”
Zawa came to Australia 33 years ago and studied law at UNSW. Before joining ACCC in 2010 he was a partner at big firms Allens, Minters and Freehills doing intellectual-property litigation.
“In the culture that I came from, the US, lawyers move in and out of government work quite often. I’d been a partner for 10 years and I was getting a little tired of that,” he says.
“I felt that I’d been an immigrant to this country and it had been very, very good to me and I wanted to give something back.”
And now he’s a “corporate ambulance chaser”?
“That’s unjustified. In our legal system, it’s very, very expensive and if there are opportunities you can present to people who otherwise don’t have access to justice to that system, then that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t call it ambulance chasing.”
Zawa says he went into law “with the idea of helping people solve their problems”.
“For me, reading cases was like reading short stories about the absurd, tragic and interesting things human beings get themselves involved in.”
He says his time at the ACCC, combined with recent events, made him think “there is an issue in corporate Australia”.
“Some of these organisations seem to me to be so large that they are almost incapable of proper management.”