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Mr Blue Sky

Mr Blue Sky
Donal Hanley ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

Top aviation leasing solicitor Donal Hanley



Transglobal aviation leasing lawyer Donal Hanley talks to Mary Hallissey about a distinguished career that has spanned every continent with world-leading companies, where he has served at executive and non-executive board level.

Donal Hanley reflects that the reason he didn’t become a barrister was because he believed he wasn’t good at thinking on his feet quickly enough. But given his blue-chip transcontinental career, the McCann FitzGerald-trained solicitor must surely have been nimble on his feet in spotting and seizing opportunities.

Mr Blue Sky

Mr Blue Sky

Hanley (57) realised early on that he wanted an international dimension to his work life, and thought that being a solicitor (rather than a Law Library-bound barrister) would give more scope for that.

The longed-for international dimension has followed in spades, with roles spanning every continent, at executive and non-executive board level. Hanley has lived in Dublin, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Montreal and Taipei, forging a distinguished career with leading aircraft-leasing companies.

His doctoral thesis became the basis for a best-selling book on aircraft-leasing law. As an aircraft finance expert, Dr Hanley is an instructor to International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines. And he is an adjunct professor teaching aircraft acquisition and finance law at Canada’s prestigious McGill University.

He also led the start-up of a successful Egyptian joint-venture aircraft-leasing company, with the aid of a double tax treaty facilitated by the Irish embassy there. And he helped to build the Irish operations of a large aircraft-leasing company, Aviation Capital Group, to the point where it now has over US$1 billion in assets.

“I could have been a partner in a Dublin law firm, and lived in a fine Georgian or Victorian house,” he muses. “That would have been wonderful. I took a different path and I’m glad I did.

“I understand how privileged and lucky I’ve been,” he says bashfully. “I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people. It’s great to stay in Ireland, it’s a wonderful country, but for those who want to see the world, I don’t think you’ll ever regret it. You can always come back.”

21st century man

The market may yet saturate in Dublin for law graduates, and Hanley stands as an example of the global possibilities out there. He offers some sage advice to early-career solicitors – always keep in touch with your network, and not just when you’re looking for something: “Keep in touch for the small stuff as well.”

Hanley also emphasises the value of a good mentor: “I’ve been blessed with good mentors with all of my employers,” he says.

Hanley has kept up with core friends and family in Ireland, while the thrill of travel has never gone stale for him. “When I was on the road negotiating leases – I was on an overnight flight from the Tibetan Plateau to Iceland – I remembered the days when the big thrill was to go to London!”

Having moved away aged 25, he describes the return to Ireland at 50 as a “reverse culture shock”. He recently texted a friend to say he was on the No 42 bus from Malahide to ‘An Lár’, and felt like he was 20 again.

“Nothing much ever changes on the northside!” came the answer.

He acknowledges that, once back in Ireland, he kept a lid on his opinions: “There is a limit to the views you are allowed to have if you’re not living here or have been away a long time,” he notes.

But the biggest single change he notices is the overall beneficial effect of immigration into Ireland. “Immigrants come to Ireland now for economic as much as for family reasons, because they see it simply as a prosperous north European country, which is something we’ve desperately being trying to come across as, for decades,” he says.

“Immigrants are helping us to get over our postcolonial baggage. So maybe it’s helping us to normalise ourselves.”

Hanley also notices the immigrant revitalisation of Irish towns, with little businesses starting up, in contrast to the traditional Celtic hostility to urban life. Immigrants often make more productive use of Irish town and city centres, he believes.

Hold on tight

Hanley’s great passion at school in Belvedere College was Celtic Studies, but his practical-minded father pulled him aside and pointed out that he might grow to hate the thing he loved if he couldn’t get a living out of it. “You like arguing with me, so why don’t you try law?” suggested Hanley Senior.

Donal found he was quite taken with law at Trinity, and he did well, while also spending a lot of time in the Celtic Studies section of the library. “The academic demands for law at Trinity in those days were quite gentlemanly,” he muses.

Subsequently, as a graduate trainee in the finance department at McCann FitzGerald, Hanley was fascinated by the glamorous figure of consultant and arbitrator Max Abrahamson.

Abrahamson worked in global construction arbitration and was constantly jetting off, away from the economically depressed Ireland of the late 1980s.

“In terms of lawyer lifestyles, he seemed very exciting in the staid world of solicitors in those days. He was always rushing out the door with a suitcase into a taxi, and he seemed to live a wonderful, international life,” Hanley recalls.

An aircraft-finance stint in the McCann FitzGerald London office soon followed for Donal. The biggest client was Guinness Peat Aviation.

A planned move to New York fell through but, later, the opportunity came up to go to Tokyo, to work as a foreign law associate with a leading Japanese law firm. The connection was that the chairs of both McCann FitzGerald and Anderson Mori Tomotsune had been in Harvard together – and GPA was planning to expand into Japan.

Subsequently, Hanley was accepted on to the European Commission Executive Training Programme in Japan, which was a paid scholarship to study and work there. A move to Linklaters in Japan followed, still focused on the aircraft-leasing sector.

Calling America

“I’ve never worked as hard in my life or played as hard – they were wonderful colleagues. It was great fun,” he says.

For personal reasons, he then planned to move to Los Angeles, where he had no connections. At this point, Hanley wanted an in-house job in aviation finance, in LA, ideally with a Japanese connection.

If you want something badly in your career, write it down, Hanley suggests, because that will help to crystallise the goal more accurately in your mind. Hanley got an introduction to a British diplomat, who fitted him in for a swift cocktail before going on to a smart dinner. There was no time to mess around.

“Well, I’d done my writing exercise, and I told him what I wanted.” A further introduction ensued, with the chief executive of a Japanese aircraft-leasing company in LA: “The diplomat wrote it down, like a prescription on a piece of paper. That resulted in a job offer.”

Hanley then resigned from Linklaters – just before the job offer was rescinded, because of lack of budget approval. Linklaters allowed him to stay on, however, and some time later, the budget was approved.

He began work without fully agreeing terms, knowing that he trusted the people involved: “I spent six happy years with Mitsui, and was able to use my Japanese. I flew all over the world with my Japanese colleagues – they were great guys. We worked all day in English, then switched to Japanese in the evening.”

But things changed after 9/11, as the aircraft-leasing industry contracted. He was invited to a Christmas party at Aviation Capital Group (ACG), which was expanding at the time.

“Social occasions are where they reconnoitre you, to see if you can get on harmoniously with others. The ability to fit into the company culture and not cause chaos is huge,” Hanley says, as a global career veteran.

However, he cautions that money alone should never be the motivating factor in any job change: “I would tell lawyers, never leave just because of more money. Leave because it’s the right job for you. And never, ever burn your bridges. There are mergers and acquisitions. Don’t be surprised if, six months later, your old company acquires your new company!”

He believes that there is always a path ahead, even if it’s not the expected one: “Even if it doesn’t work out the way you planned, it can be really interesting what comes up as an alternative.”

Strange magic

Hanley spent 14 years with ACG, winding up as managing director of its Irish subsidiary, ACG Aircraft Leasing Ireland Limited. This enabled him to return to Dublin in November 2014, accompanied by his wife Helen, whom he met in Tokyo, in 1992.

He was also encouraged by Mitsui and ACG to burnish his academic credentials, and he embarked on an MBA, run by Concordia University and IATA in Montreal.

His studies led on to a doctorate in aircraft leasing, completed while commuting between Los Angeles and Cairo. And out of his doctorate grew the definitive textbook on aviation leasing law – Aircraft Operating Leasing: A Legal and Practical Analysis in the Context of Public and Private International Air Law.

Against himself, he admits that he once walked into an upmarket London law bookshop and asked if the book was in stock. When the snooty assistant unwrapped a copy, Hanley revealed he was the author.

“How very good for you, sir!” replied the assistant.

Hanley ploughed on and offered to sign the book.

“No, that would make it second-hand, and it would lose all its value,” the assistant responded haughtily.

Humbled and dejected, Hanley walked out into the rain: “A necessary tonic against hubris!” he adds.

Shine a little love

His PhD thesis had been pursued at Leiden University. But the Trinity graduate locked horns with the Dean there before it was approved.

True to his Belvederean education, Hanley wrote the Jesuit motto AMDG (Ad majorem Dei gloriam – ‘For the greater glory of God’) on the inscription.

The Dean objected, ordering its removal on the grounds that Leiden was “not Christian, but a free-speech university”.

Hanley did some research and found that four dissertations had previously been approved that had been inscribed Allahu Akbar (‘God is Great’) on the title page. The university refused to budge, however, but also refused to allow future students to use Allahu Akbar – an outcome Hanley did not seek.

The inscription did finally make it into the ultimately published book: “Some of my old Jesuit schoolmasters would be happy,” Hanley chortles.

He now has a mixed portfolio of lecturing posts and non-executive directorships: “I wanted to be a solicitor hopping on planes to go and do business deals,” he recalls.

“I ended up doing that. I’ve been shown a lot of graces and privileges during my career, and anything that’s gone right, I can’t say it’s due to my own intrinsic merit.”

Don’t bring me down

Hanley has trenchant observations on what is necessary to continue Ireland’s success in aviation finance.

“The Government must seriously examine its performance during the pandemic to see what lessons can be learned, and what it got right – and wrong. Aviation was particularly badly affected by effective bans on travel.

“Regardless of one’s views on the need for restrictions, the blurring of law and advice is not healthy for the rule of law. The courts need to be independent and not act as arms of the Cabinet. Sadly, they did not shine during this crisis, and showed a lack of independence that was hard to miss. That will be remembered later.

“Mandatory quarantine is one thing, but the effect on aviation of mandatory hotel quarantining was quite something else. And, actually, to charge travellers for detention was likely in breach of Ireland’s international public-health commitments,” he believes.

“The effect on expatriate aircraft-financing executives (among many others) here, who were effectively separated from their families overseas at a time when other countries were not imposing such restrictions, will not have helped.

“Combined with simultaneous anti-aviation rhetoric from the transport minister on environmental grounds, and a push to increase corporate tax levels, it may be that, without careful attention from the Government, the industry may see Ireland as no longer strongly committed either to aviation or the rule of law – neither of which would bode well,” he warns.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette