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For this Stellar Women episode, we spoke to Lesley Chan about the many mentors she seeks out for advice on navigating her career. As senior legal counsel at AMP Capital, Lesley discusses the transition from working in a law firm to going in-house, and how her curious nature makes her well-suited to that type of work environment.
Check out this episode to see what Lesley enjoys about the corporate world and why she embraces the spillover between her work and personal life.
Senior Legal Counsel
Mary Rechtoris: Hey, Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rectoris. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech. Today, I'm really excited to chat with Lesley Chan from AMP Capital. In this episode, Lesley and I talk about what it's like moving from a law firm to an in-house role and the many mentors who have shaped her career. Tell me a little bit about what you do.
Lesley Chan: It's quite funny. I'm a corporate lawyer. I do a lot of mergers and acquisitions. So I work in-house for a fund manager. It’s one of those things where [my husband] Tony was relatively new in the e-discovery world. He's done some legal tech in the past, but you know, he's got a thirst for knowledge. He’s gone into sports and has done all sorts of different things. Then, he took time off to really build our house as well. He came back through and said, “You know what? I'm going to do this e-discovery thing.” He was asking me all these questions. I'm like, “Tony, the law is very broad.” I've dabbled in a little bit here and there. Working for a fund manager, we do have [regulatory response] notices and stuff for our fund. For my sins, I tend to put my hand up and say, “I'll give everything a go.” So my dispute colleagues got very busy and didn't have a chance to really look at a regulatory notice that came through. So I said, “Oh, I'll give it a crack. I'll have a look at it.” And I said to Tony, “that's the extent of the foray I have into a e-discovery really effectively.” I do transactions. I kind of caught the tail end of the private equity boom in Australia before the GFC hit. That was my foray into where I actually developed the love that I have for doing transactions. One of the things that I really like around transactional roles like this is that it's about bringing a couple of parties together who ultimately have the same end goal. Obviously, everyone's got their own interests and touch points on what it is that they're trying to get out of the transaction. Private equity is a great space to really understand a little bit more around how managers work and the role of management in a company. For me, Herbert Smith Freehills was a great place to learn the ropes. I think my joke was that in-house has then really tested how well I’ve learned them. So I actually started my current role on secondment and in my first six months of my secondment, I went back to my partner at Herbert Smith and Freehills and I said, “Oh, my God, thank you for teaching me so well. But I have to say that what you taught me in the last five years, I just used in the in the six months on secondment.” An in-house role is so varied and fast paced that you don't have that chance like you would in a law firm when working on the larger transactions to do that deep dive from start to finish on something. So in my role in-house, I tend to kind of be lifted up a level higher. You're brought in to do all the negotiations. You have that big picture overview of how everything slots in together and you get the finer details of drafting everything through and making sure the documents all hang together. I tend to work with external lawyers in my role now, which is much nicer. I say [to them], “Okay, so, you know, these are the things that I'm worried about and you can make sure that's all tidied up. And I'll be online next at this time so please make sure you've got them done then. Thanks.”
MR: What's been the biggest surprise, like something you didn't expect about going in-house?
LC: I think I was just really surprised about the quality of the work that in-house lawyers really get to do. When you're in a firm, you always have the inkling [of what they do] because effectively a lot of the time your client is the in-house team. Not every organization has an in-house team. One of the other myths is that generally all the good and complicated work get outsourced and all the in-house lawyers do is contracts and it looks a lot like an investment manager doing NDAs, engagement letters, and things like that. When I went on secondment, a colleague of mine from HSF actually came and said, “Oh, I just did one of those [engagements] and it was so boring. I don't what you are going to do for the next six months.” So when I went in, I didn't really have an expectation around what it was that I would be doing. I knew generally what it was about. Going into the role and considering that I never left and I'm coming up on 10 years, it has been doing a lot of quality work and working with smart people. I have found out how different an environment it is when you are sitting in a law firm thinking that you know the client well and thinking that you know the subject matter really well. [In-house] is about actually being thrown into a business where you really live and breathe that business. You’re in the trenches with not only the law firm, but with your front office, people who are fly around with you doing the deal, and your back office teams. Once the deal is done, what happens? Someone's got to make sure it's all operationalized properly. You know you really understand the inner workings of a business much better in an in-house role than in a law firm. My hot tip to any of the juniors that I come across is if an opportunity comes across for you to do a secondment, take it and embrace it with both hands because the skills that you develop in an in-house role compared to the skills that you develop in the firm are actually very different. You will find which one you like and which one better suits your lifestyle and your working style as well.
MR: You talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the specific qualities that you think would differentiate someone that thrives in a law firm versus in-house?
LC: I think that if you put your mind to it, you can thrive in whatever environment. It is a mindset. Speaking personally, what I think serves me better being in-house than a law firm is that I'm curious by nature. So, I tend to ask a lot of questions around [things like]: how does that fit into the bigger picture? I really embed myself in the entire process. What I find is that this is a trait which serves you well anyway—that innate curiosity that you have. Feeding that curiosity and constantly trying to improve whatever it is that you are picking up. Don’t just answer a specific question, but actually look at it holistically and hopefully what you leave behind is better than when you first looked at it. Things like that build a really good track record for you in an in-house role because you would be with that client for much longer. In a law firm, you do tend to be much more matter specific. You come in, you do something, and then you move on to the next thing. For me, I quite like having that continuity of actually trying to build something and be part of part of an organization that's moving in a direction that really resonates with you.
MR: A big part of this podcast, Lesley, is about mentorship. I'm curious if you currently have a mentee or any mentors throughout your career, whether on the law firm side or in-house, that have really [helped] get you to where you are now.
LC: I think COVID-19 has proven that we are actually quite social beings, right? Take the ability to kind of go and do whatever you want at any time. Then, you realize, oh, actually, I really actually miss people. I've been very lucky in my career that I've had a number of mentors. None of them have been really that formal. I haven't really been through a formal kind of mentoring program or sponsorship program. What I have found is that there will be a lot of people you come across in your career and that you really gel with. I've always been somebody who has had a number of different confidants. I talk to my husband a lot. What’s interesting is that I also have a very good friend of mine who's from high school who I find is quite similar to me but in a totally different field. She's also in professional services, but she's not a lawyer. She's given me a lot of advice over the years. They are both people who know me really, really well. Sometimes, it's good to have people who know you really well but are outside of your immediate circle at work helps you. This helps you look at yourself and reflect a little bit better. [This is why] I was a bit short at Tony when he first started in e-discovery. One of the first things he did was go through my LinkedIn contacts and started hitting up my friends. We've been together for a long time so he knows them too. I'm like, “Come on, man, you’re going into my circles.” In terms of other mentors that I've had, I've had a number of mentors who have been partners in law firms. From time to time, I also speak to them. It's one of those funny things. I actually spoke tonight to a partner that I had when I was a grad at Herbert Smith and Freehills. It would have been only a year or so ago I had to email him and said, “I really need to thank you for all of the guidance that you've given me. Even to this day—and it’s been 10 years or 15 years now since I was a baby grad—all the things that you told me, I still remember and draw on.” In terms of that, I find mentoring really good and really supportive. Because of that reason, I've got a number of mentees. Having had that experience myself of having the support from mentors and the guidance that people can give me, you want to give back. Being able to give back and having your own mentees actually is an experience in itself as well. I've said to my mentees previous that I think it's actually a little bit of a two-way street and that nothing's ever one way. I've learned so much by having mentees. I've been very fortunate in my workplace where they're very supportive of these sorts of things. It was actually a formal mentoring program where they actually gave guidance to both the mentors and the mentees. We went through a structured program for a couple of months to give both my mentee and me some tips on how to have a good mentoring relationship. As I said, I've never really had a formal mentor. What I can draw on through this program where I am a formal mentor is that a lot of these things you can't force. You can put two people together, but if they don't kind of gel, then the relationship will come to a natural end. If you do find that person who you can have a good conversation with and it's somebody that you respect and value their input, then the ball is really in your court. No one else is really going to look out for you and your role more than yourself. My other mentor, who was actually my manager for a long time, her best advice to me over the years has been that no one else is actually going to shape your career other than you. So, you know, I'm your manager. But if you turn up to your one-on-one just sitting there expecting me to kind of talk to you about stuff, the only thing I'll ever talk to you about is what you are immediately doing in your role. Because as your immediate line manager at the moment, that's what I'll be looking for. But if you can come to these meetings prepared with an agenda of what you want to talk about and focus on, that’s much more to work with besides what you are working on at the moment. I find mentoring is one of those things that you can't force. Like anything, if you spend the time and energy to put some effort and thought into mentorship, it is very rewarding, both as a mentor and a mentee.
MR: I like how you said that you do need that rapport and that specificity because mentorship is a good deal of time and effort that you're both investing to get someone to where they want to go. If you show up like, “I just need you to help me.” It's like well, help you do what? Is it help you become a better speaker? Help you gain confidence? Then, you can actually set measures to get to where you want to go. I think that's a really great point.
LC: The recognition has to be there. Coming up with what you want your mentor to help you with is actually quite a hard proposition. Like I always think, what do I what to do when I grow up? In-house lawyers get asked this question all the time. People ask that question like of, “Do you want to be a lawyer forever?” I’m like, “I don't know. I don't really know what else is out there and I guess the other thing is that I genuinely enjoy my job.” So you don't really question what else is out there when you're actually quite happy. And I think that's one of the things is that it’s okay to be happy and content where you are. But, it has to be a conscious decision.
LC: Otherwise, what will happen is that you might look back and think, “Oh, I settled way too early and what if?” That’s when you might end up having some questions around regrets and whatever else. Having, you know, the close contacts, like my good friend and also my husband, has been really good in having a workshop with someone who really knows me quite well as a person. Reaching out to some of my business mentors has been a really good complement. I actually find now as a mentor that it is really difficult if your mentee comes to you saying, “I just want to, you know, rule the world type of thing.” I am like, “Okay. And, what's the first step you think you have to do to get there?” And they’re like, “I don't know. What do you think?” So that recognition [is important.] You’ve got mentors or you are a mentor, it's really doesn't mean much until you make it a relationship. Like any relationship, you need to put the time and effort into it.
MR: I think it's an interesting take on mentorship that good friends … partners … whomever … can be a mentor. Sometimes, it's those people that can really share insightful stuff, whether it's about work or anything else. Like sometimes, you know, you go to some friends who you might not know well. They'll just agree with you because you're going to them for advice and they're your cheerleader. But then there's other times I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to tell my mom this and she'll tell me what I might not want to hear because she knows me and she knows my strengths and my weaknesses.” Having people that know you so well can help you get to where you want to go or help you navigate [whatever] because they know you and where you might succeed, compared to someone who knows you more only in a professional way.
LC: As you progress in life, you really realize that you think that you can segregate your work life, your family life, your personal life. I find, yes, some people might be quite successful at doing that, but there's a lot of joy to be had with the spillover.
LC: Effectively, then you don't have to think, “Oh, do I need to be my work self or do I need to be my mom self or whatever?” I genuinely would like to say I'm the same person, regardless of what setting I'm in. I'm sure I might revert to some form because my role is different in different scenarios. But, I am generally the same person. I think that is much less effort compared to being something different. If you take that approach to mentorship, for example, I don't see why you would not see people in different aspects of your life as a mentor. There’s the recognition that, yes, my husband is my husband, but he is also somebody who's a professional. He's also worked in different circles, and, especially when he started doing the e-discovery thing, our circles were fluid. You know, his opinion matters. Same with you and your friends and whatever else. Even if I don't work in the same industry as you, sometimes it's better to have people not in the same industry because that’s where you can get best in breed to expand the way that you think and who you talk to.
MR: Lesley, thanks so much for joining me today. It was great to talk to you.
LC: Thanks very much for that Mary.
MR: With that, for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris—signing off.