Lawyer helping people to work on their legacy

Wild Geese: Dubliner Donal Griffin helps clients in Australia with ‘pre-nups for families’

Donal Griffin says it’s possible to die a happy rich man; the trick is not to leave it too late, to be more present to acknowledge the truth of the past and to forgive everyone, including yourself.

Donal Griffin says it’s possible to die a happy rich man; the trick is not to leave it too late, to be more present to acknowledge the truth of the past and to forgive everyone, including yourself.

 

Donal Griffin first came to Australia as a backpacker. “It was probably the best year of my life,” says the Dubliner of a gap year taken after his law degree at UCD. Coming home to qualify as a lawyer and get the experience to apply for residency, he returned to Australia 10 years later in 2001. It’s been home since.

His first stop was “the ghetto of Bondi beach, kind of the nicest ghetto in the world”, he says. Work followed. “I’ve found Australians very open to giving people a chance. Being an outsider is often helpful: the school I went to was irrelevant if I could do the job.”

There is a lot of love for Irish people there, he says, and Australians are quite pleased to give someone with European experience a go.

“There is a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. They look up to the old world and having experience from London but also from Dublin is quite well regarded.”

Sydney has a “work hard” ethic he says and he describes the practise of law there as “intellectually solid” with little cronyism. “There are good lawyers here. The system is quite Anglo Saxon and quite proper.”

Starting out in commercial law, he fell into acting for individual business owners. “I found that more rewarding as I could have a relationship with the family rather than being just one of a number of lawyers working on a transaction.” He is now director of his own firm, Legacy Law, a private-client firm specialising in wills and estates.

“We act for a lot of business owners and people who have sold businesses,” he says. It’s not just their financial assets that Griffin specialises in protecting. “I’m really passionate about helping people transfer their legacy – what they want to leave might not just be financial. It might be their business, their work ethic, a community interest or a connection with a sporting association. It might be a religious or cultural view,” he says.

He has developed a process that helps families to capture their story and their legacy, sometimes bringing in psychologists and facilitators to help tease that out.

“There is a sensitive bit of personal and family work that we can help people with – what are their values. We would try to find some common ground and get the children to agree that these are the family values that are important. Things like, ‘We don’t fight, we treat each other respectfully, we remember where we’ve come from.’

“Lots of wealthy people can be quite horrified that all of a sudden their modest lifestyle has resulted in building up a whole lot of money where the kids don’t have to be modest.”

His clients are often migrants done good, passing on a family business or considerable wealth. His goal is to help them achieve a smooth succession of wealth, financial and otherwise.

“They have generally scrambled around, worked long and hard, come from something modest to something substantial. The parents wanted their kids to have a more comfortable life. That drive, the school of hard knocks, the operating from the arse of your trousers is not the experience of the kids.” He describes his process as like documenting a family charter, giving the family an understanding of each other and a road map for a combined intention and family purpose.

“Usually the parent controls things and then the kids inherit and there is a huge amount of guesswork and goodwill just hoped for. But when there is money involved and each of the kids has their own family, people can fight, just like they did over toys. We don’t like sharing as kids and it’s the same as adults.”

He describes the result as like a pre-nup for families. It can include more practical guidance too, such as agreement about who will be in charge of valuing assets.

“It allows for some respect for what’s happened before, some alignment and where a business is involved, an exit strategy so people aren’t allowed to go nuclear.” While a court may not recognise it as binding, it is evidence of agreement among family members about how things should happen.

Migrant story

With a teenage son of his own, a dual Irish-Australian citizen, Griffin began documenting his own migrant story.

“He doesn’t really understand the Irish culture as people who grew up there know it. I thought I should really write that down. Why did I leave, what did I learn in Ireland? What do I think was good about it and what do I like about not being there,” says Griffin.

This spurred him on to write a book – An Irish Book of Living and Dying – a Migrant’s Tale, is published in July. He also has his own website, beabetterancestor.com.

He says in place of public philosophers, Ireland’s writers have instead performed the role. “I had loads of [their] books with yellow stickers in them. I started to gather them and write my story and, in the process, came up with this book.”

Describing the message of the book, Griffin says it’s possible to die a happy rich man; the trick is not to leave it too late, to be more present to acknowledge the truth of the past and to forgive everyone, including yourself.

“Writing a story can be therapeutic for the individual and for the family. It’s about not just writing an epitaph, but writing a legacy and being a better ancestor.”

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