Stacey Pettit is currently a General Counsel at GeelongPort, a company on Wadawarrung country. In this role, she is primarily responsible for the legal, governance and corporate affairs of the company. Prior to taking on this role, Stacey has spent the majority of her career working in senior legal roles across government organisations, and private and publicly listed companies.
Stacey is passionate about getting involved, building relationships and supporting lawyers new to in-house practice. Today, she shares more about her career and her advice for young women interested in law.
Going back to your university days, what inspired you to study politics and law?
I started my Arts degree at the University of Melbourne in 1996. At the time, our O-week activities were side-tracked by the Howard-led Coalition party winning the March election the same week which moved the Keating Labor government out after 13 years. This brought about a platform of voluntary student unionism and cuts to government spend in higher education which led to campus-wide protests. If I wasn’t already interested in studying politics from debating and current affairs, this was the ultimate introduction!
Sure, it was no Berkeley in the 60’s nor akin to Monash in the 70’s, but frankly, for a student from a government high school in the outer eastern suburbs, it felt radical. Amazingly my first tutor for state politics was the late John Cain Sr. Republicanism was having a renaissance in the advent of the 1998 Constitutional Convention. The constitution received sustained popular attention for the longest time since federation, ok perhaps 1975, meaning voting systems, federalism, executive powers were hot current affairs topics as well as being undergraduate fields of study. Current politics students may be experiencing this now with the COVID pandemic highlighting the interrelation and challenges of federal/state powers. My Arts subjects included Legal Studies, offered by the Law Faculty and taught by Roger Hawthorn. He encouraged me to apply for a transfer into a combined Arts/Law degree, which I did after two years. The University of Melbourne offered me a full-fee place, seemingly sky-high at the time at $10,000 per annum, so I accepted a HECS place offered by Monash University and sadly left the Parkville campus that had provided me with so much opportunity and growth. My pathway to a law degree was rather untraditional.
Since your time at university, you have spent the majority of your career in Legal Counsel roles. What attracted you to this type of work?
In-house legal work is terrific! I have found that the depth of business knowledge that you gain in-house is unparalleled to other legal fields such as working for a private practice or at the Bar. I have especially enjoyed having the opportunity to become an integral part of the business I work in. Legal professionals are increasingly becoming important as trusted advisers, adept at navigating the regulatory landscape for a firm.
Having had experience in listed, government and privately owned businesses, I have come to learn that these skills are readily transferable to different sectors. Much of my career has centred on in-house or corporate counsel work, especially for retail businesses. In my new role, I am focussing on property and ports which has required me to apply my existing skill set in new, exciting ways.
According to Lawyers Weekly, female grads in law firms currently outnumber their male counterparts 2-to-1, yet lag behind in more senior roles. As a woman in law, have you faced any challenges as a result of your gender?
That's right! Women have officially taken over the legal profession in Australia. The Australian Financial Review reported last year that 53 per cent of solicitors are now female and every state and territory reports more women lawyers than men for the first time. It’s phenomenal progress. However, while the Chief Justices of the High Court of Australia and Supreme Court of Victoria are women, there is still a lag in women occupying senior roles.
In terms of how we can fix this gap, I strongly believe that workplace flexibility is a crucial tool to enable more women to access senior positions and improve overall womens' longevity in the profession. We know that women's careers are less likely to be linear and are more prone to shifting even aside from possible parenting and carer responsibilities, so flexibility is vital.
I think that this was one highly beneficial change to come out of the pandemic as many professions dispensed with the traditional desk-bound workplace rigidity and appreciated the benefits of flexible work across location, hours and technology. Overall, this had a very positive effect which I believe will, overtime, enable women to achieve more senior roles, and avoid plateaus or career derailment following changing personal circumstances.
Historically, in-house legal work has been seen as an easier, family friendly, less-demanding area of legal practice. However, this perception does not necessarily match the modern day reality of a corporate counsel. As we wait for more change in the industry, be ready to accept that careers rarely progress in a straight line. Rather, focus on your cumulative portfolio of skills and experiences to catapult you to the next role.
What have you learned about being a leader through your work in more senior roles?
An increasingly important role of an in-house counsel is providing non-legal advice. Many individuals who are new to in-house practice don’t expect it, but in-house lawyers have increasingly played an important role in executive decision-making within an organisation. As the in-house counsel, your fellow executives should come to see you as part of the team, not just the “in-house lawyer” policing deals. Regulatory compliance and procurement are certainly part of the legal role, and central to business operations, but challenge yourself to think bigger. The quicker you can be comfortable with this and realise legal teams can have leadership roles in environment, social and governance initiatives, the better.
A trusted in-house counsel is a valuable contributor across all departments in an organisation. To reach this point in your career, it’s vital that you work to build trust through developing a deep knowledge of your business operations and building relationships across departments. At times, the number of matters you might be managing can be overwhelming, so having this knowledge allows you to better lead the legal team and correctly manage priorities.
What would be your advice to young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
I have two main pieces of advice that are interrelated: build relationships and get involved.
1. Build relationships. We all need relationships to help us out professionally. If you bristle at the term “networking”, try to reframe the way you think about it. All it is is making new connections in your community. If this still makes you nervous, do more listening and less talking in your initial chats. At the end of the day, just try to reach out to people you are interested in. The worst they can say is no.
Early on in your career you may not realise it, but being smart, working hard and not making waves will not guarantee a dream job or promotion despite potentially contributing to early successes. However, if you can start to build relationships and networks, it will get you on the radar for the opportunities or roles you are after.
If you are working while studying, start in that workplace. Expand your responsibilities beyond your position description. Offer to help your employer with corporate social responsibility initiatives. Continually build relationships in your professional, academic and work community. I’ve been told “when you need a relationship, it’s too late to build it” and unfortunately it is true.
2. My second piece of advice is to get involved! You’re smart and studying degrees that will have you politically astute and financially literate at a leading university, so don’t underestimate the value you can bring, even before you graduate, to your community.
Many professional associations allow student members. Don’t just join but attend the meetings and take on responsibilities. Alternatively, volunteer in an activist group, community legal centre, political party or other group in your field of interest. Even your surf club, sport committee, playgroup, school council or owners’ corporation can benefit from your skills.
The esteemed quasi-academic opportunities such as parliamentary internships, moots, Future Leaders Forum, Pathway to Politics program offered by the University are life-changing. Get to know how things work and how decisions are made and get involved. After the social isolation brought on by the pandemic, action latent academic and career desires harboured during lockdowns. So try to embrace the fresh optimism that is accompanying the easing in restrictions!