LEADERS SURVEY: Clayton Utz chief Emma Covacevich reveals what’s keeping leaders awake and her weekend hobby

Adrian Rauso
The Nightly
Emma Covacevich is the chief partner of Clayton Utz
Emma Covacevich is the chief partner of Clayton Utz Credit: Supplied

The boss of a leading law firm says there’s one clear threat on the minds of Australia’s c-suite.

“In my conversations with CEOs, board members and general counsels, cyber threats are what’s keeping them up at night,” Clayton Utz chief executive partner Emma Covacevich told The Nightly for its exclusive Leaders Survey.

“Data security is a clear challenge for all businesses, and for law firms that challenge extends to maintaining our own internal data and the confidential information our clients trust us with.

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“We’re now in an era of data minimisation, and we’re increasingly seeing client requests for support on that front, helping them develop tools and processes to keep their data safe.”

Next month Ms Covacevich, the first female boss of Clayton Utz in its 191-year history, will mark a year in the top job.

She says her days usually start with a swim or a walk to start work with a clear head.

“The days are long, but my husband and I make sure we sit down to eat together each night,” Ms Covacevich said.

“Then it’s time for the daily Wordle challenge and some mindless TV.

“On weekends I’m at the beach in the surf, where I’m at my happiest.”

The career lawyer, specialising in mergers and acquisitions, has gained some sage advice from being in the inner of some of corporate Australia’s biggest deals.

“As a business leader, the best advice I’ve been given is not to take yourself too seriously and to surround yourself with a strong team,” she said.

“I learnt early the importance of surrounding myself with a team I trust, who bring experience that I don’t have skills that complement my own, and who challenge me when they need to.

“And the best advice I was given as a young lawyer: there’s no substitute for reading the agreement!”

Ms Covacevich believes the “huge amount” of local and foreign capital looking for a home at the moment in a rapidly changing business environment is both the biggest challenge and opportunity for Australia.

“The challenge for Australia is making sure we can take advantage of this (capital influx) … that’s obviously also an opportunity for Australian business, and for all of us to take a hard look at making sure we get the policy settings right, not just for investment but also for business creativity and agility,” she said.

“It’s not just the problem of connecting the capital with an opportunity that is exercising the minds of corporate Australia, of course.

“Many of my recent conversations with Board members revolve around the same, increasingly complex challenges.”

Ms Covacevich says five years ago board members would have flagged shareholder activism, class action activity and ESG as key challenges.

“Those issues haven’t gone away, but now there’s a much greater appreciation of the need to boost cyber and data resilience,” she said.

“Add artificial intelligence into the mix, and many directors are on what might be the steepest learning curve of their careers.

“It’s potentially so transformative that we as a society are still trying to grasp what might lie ahead.”

However, she says its “pretty clear” that any business that can use AI to leverage its data while also complying with the evolving legal regulation, domestically and globally, will be a winner.

“It’s certainly an opportunity we’re taking with our own operations, as well as one we’re advising on.”

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