As the Australian managing partner of global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, Alison Deitz is open about some of the experiences she’s had juggling parenting with work.
She sees storytelling as an opportunity to share lived experiences and empathise with staff who are currently experiencing similar challenges in managing a family, in whatever shape or form that comes.
Alison speaks particularly about the early days, when she was one of the first partners to take parental leave and return to work part time – a rarity 17 years ago when she had her daughter.
She returned to work while still breastfeeding, so would express during the work day – using the manual pump so much that she actually suffered RSI in her right hand. It was also before parent and breastfeeding rooms were commonplace in large offices – which led to what she describes as one of her most embarrassing moments.
“We didn’t have an appropriate place to express during the day,” Alison explains. “So I went into one of the conference rooms.” You can guess what happens next: one of the managing partners, as well as the head of her team, both walked in for a meeting.
“Ever since then, we’ve had a parent’s room!”
I spoke to Alison for the Family Friendly Workplaces Podcast, an initiative of Parents at Work and UNICEF Australia asking how leaders are creating more supportive workplaces acknowledging the needs and caring responsibilities staff have outside of work.
For Alison, her time at the helm of Norton Rose Fulbright came just as the pandemic hit, creating what she describes as an “extraordinary” period for the firm, and one in which a leader’s empathy is essential.
Within one week, the law firm had 1000 staff in Australia working from home – an impressive effort in a profession known for being more traditional around workplace practices than others.
While flexible work was available pre COVID-19 at Norton Rose Fulbright, Alison says the pandemic era has sparked a revolution in how it’s used and accessed. She’s seen teams get creative in how they want to work, specifying days for staff to be in the office and days to be out. When we talk (prior to Sydney and Melbourne’s Winter lockdowns), she says they average around 60 per cent in the office on any one day. A difference that is enabling them to rethink office space and even reduce its office footprint.
Alison is also witnessing the benefits of this increase in flexible work across the firm – noting how it’s seen some realise an increased “zest for life”, although she adds it’s not always easy for everyone and an increase in working from home must consider learning opportunities for younger staff.
“If you are giving your staff that flexibility, you have to make sure it works and that there is enough connection and presenteeism that they’re not losing that osmosis that comes from working from a team, particularly for the younger generation who need that ‘bump’ factor,” she says.
Flexibility is an important component of creating a family friendly workplace – and it’s good to see how law firms have been able to better mainstream these practices during the past couple of years.
But flexibility is only part of the story, other policies like sound domestic violence leave and paid parental leave are also essential.
On the former, Alison says it’s a critical workplace policy, noting the role workplaces can play in supporting those impacted by family violence.
On paid parental leave, the firm now offers 18 weeks to new parents. It also recently refreshed its language around the policy, making it gender neutral, inclusive and available to those who bring a new child into their lives through surrogacy, adoption, kinship and foster caring. The firm also now offers more flexibility in how such leave is taken, giving new parents two years to take it in a way that suits them. Importantly, given the gender superannuation gap which we know widens during periods of leave, superannuation is paid during this leave.
Since updating this policy, Alison says there has been a significant increase in take up of parental leave by male partners and male lawyers. They’re accessing the leave in different ways: such as by tag teaming their partner in returning to work and, in other cases, using it over a long period to work part time during those early years of bringing a child into their lives.
“Seeing a successful male partner taking this leave is really helping others to realise this is not just a female issue, this is about being a part of a workplace of the future.”
Alison personally has witnessed significant changes in how law firms work, and trailblazed such changes herself.
She recalls the complexities around returning to the firm part time after having her child, given she was an equity partner and the firm hadn’t quite figured out how to manage it. There were some concerns around how she should be paid – given a three day a week law firm partner hadn’t happened before. They figured it out. And partners have been working part time ever since.
She has also written about how in her early years in law, it wasn’t uncommon to be asked if you’d be leaving the profession once you had a family – something that was not so long ago expected of women.
And she’s highlighted the trailblazing female partners of her generation. She talks of Sharon Cook, who became the first managing partner of Henry Davis York – which would later merge with Norton Rose Fulbright in 2019. As well as another role mode, Sally Macindoe, the firm’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion who has enacted significant change at the firm during her time, inspiring other firms with her approach.
Alison continues to be a trailblazer herself, leading through a pandemic and overseeing significant shifts around flexible work and other workplace policies designed to support more families.
You can listen to the Women’s Agenda interview with Alison on the Family Friendly Workplaces podcast below.