Working the law

“Success always starts with passion and an unrelenting drive to make it work,” according to leading workplace lawyer Fay Calderone, who is a Partner at DibbsBarker Sydney.

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“Success always starts with passion and an unrelenting drive to make it work,” according to leading workplace lawyer Fay Calderone, who is a Partner at DibbsBarker Sydney.

Calderone first carved out a reputation at the Parramatta-based legal firm MatthewsFolbigg Lawyers, which she joined in 2007. Promoted to Director in 2010, she was offered an equity partnership in January 2012, making her one of the 10 owners.

Her unique approach to growing revenue, managing people, clients and budgets at the time saw her recognised as ‘Emerging Leader in the Private Sector’ at the 2014 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards. The annual awards celebrate the most inspiring and outstanding female talent in business and the community.

The high profile of the awards, her various speaking engagements and articles in industry publications attracted the attention of the executive team at DibbsBarker, who approached her to join their employment and industrial relations team that has now been rebranded as a broader People & Workplace practice. The national firm has offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra with plans to expand into Melbourne.

Attracted to the idea of working in a larger firm that espoused a collaborative approach, she joined in September 2015, becoming one of 42 partners in the 300-strong firm.

Calderone acts for employers on workplace issues including discrimination, bullying, harassment, misconduct investigations, performance management, enterprise agreement, industrial disputes, restraints and business protection claims.

In developing the broader offering for the People & Workplace practice, the team looked at the evolving workplace and how DibbsBaker could provide a more comprehensive service.

“We’re not suggesting we expand into non-legal services, and we’re certainly not going to become leadership consultants or coaches,” she says. “But, we’re developing these very strong partnership arrangements and trusted adviser relationships with our clients who are talking to us on a daily basis about the workplace issues that are keeping them up at night.”

Rather than treating unfair dismissal, bullying and harassment claims as an isolated event, they try to identify the cause of the problem, which could stem from gaps in the leadership team, culture, values or purpose of the organisation.

“We have a broader conversation with the leadership team, or the board as the case may be, and put in place a more strategic plan concerning the workplace management and engagement,” she says. “Part of that could be us having a conversation or development session with the leadership group about, for example, having courageous conversations with their employees and effectively performance managing their staff. If there are performance issues and leaders don’t address them, they become increasingly frustrated and that manifests in something short of reasonable management action, exposing their organisations to bullying complaints. In turn, employees become increasingly anxious and it gets to a melting point, which manifests in a legal claim.”

Employees in focus

This more holistic approach reflects the changing nature of the workplace as societal shifts such as flexible work arrangements, the automation of certain roles, and artificial intelligence plays out in the workforce.

Calderone expects the rate of change to be exacerbated by the millennials (those born after 1980) who are predicted to account for 50 per cent of the workforce by 2020.

“They have a very different view of the world,” she says. “They aren’t as attached to an organisation, they don’t have a ‘jobs for life’ mentality and are very motivated by altruistic purposes and need to be inspired. The pace of change is extraordinary and as a result of that change the workplace is changing.”

While offering equity in firms instils loyalty and an ownership mentality, she predicts this won’t be such a drawcard for the next generation of lawyers as lifestyle factors.

“They’re more interested in, and driven by factors such as flexibility, work-life balance, interesting work, and autonomy with mentoring from authentic leaders,” she says. “In the future, these will be bigger drivers for both engaging and retaining talented lawyers together with well thought out performance-based rewards to incentivise lawyers while still encouraging them to work collaboratively.”

For ambitious young lawyers, she advises persevering through the challenging times, for example, things can get intense in the heat of litigation. “I’d suggest focusing on the relationships you’re forming with the clients and the impact you’re having on their business as you watch it grow,” she says. “I always try to look at the bigger picture. If you have a passion for the difference you can make, then you’re more likely to be more successful.”

A rewarding career

Calderone was attracted to a career in law from an early age, an ambition she held despite the fact that no one in her large extended family had, at that stage, been to university.

She traces her drive back to her childhood in the western suburbs of Sydney where she witnessed her parents – Greek Cypriot refugees – working around the clock running their bakery and facing a constant battle to attract and retain loyal staff.

“I started following local lawyers around from the age of 15 and it confirmed very quickly I wasn’t cut out for family or criminal law but needed more variety, spice and human contact than transactional work would offer,” she says.

Since 2014, she has also served as a Director & Deputy Chair of Sport NSW, which represents 15,000 clubs and associations with more than 2.5 million participants, workers and volunteers with a particular focus on good governance, diversity and inclusiveness across the industry.

But even with all her commitments, she avoids working around the clock, putting up clear boundaries between her home and work life. As a mother of two young boys (aged 5 and 10 this year), she continues to compartmentalise: working hard while she’s in the office so she can spend weekends and quality leisure time with her family.

It helps that she loves what she does and the variety that comes with workplace law. “Every day is different, every workplace is different and every relationship is an opportunity,” she says. “It’s the human connection you get to have with people on a day-to-day basis. While it can be personal, it’s still a very commercial arrangement and for most businesses the people are the core. The most successful businesses are those with the most engaged and inspired workforces and I get my greatest satisfaction from partnering with clients to achieve this.”

She also relishes growing and leading a team, helping them to reach their full potential. “I am rewarded and inspired by mentoring the lawyers on my team, and watching them grow as practitioners,” she says. “I believe people excel in supportive environments doing things they’re genuinely interested in, which is usually the things they’re also really good at.”

It’s worked for Calderone.

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