Women of MLS: Stacey Steele

Stacey Steele is Deputy Chief Privacy Officer and Associate General Counsel at S&P Global. She is also A/Professor at Melbourne Law School and Associate Director (Japan) at the Asian Law Centre. Stacey holds an LLB from the University of Melbourne.

1. You have worked in the legal industry both in Australia and Japan. From your own experiences, how does gender equality in the workplace differ between the two cultures? 

The typical workplace in Japan and Australia looks very different. Most of my working life has been based in Australia, but I did work as a paralegal in a Japanese firm in the late 1990s and early 2000s and have many female friends who work in Japanese law firms. 

One of the wonderful things about the legal profession in Japan for women is that you have a specialisation and qualification that enables you to perhaps move beyond the traditional stereotypes which might otherwise apply in typical, large companies. In Japanese companies, particularly the large ones, once you have children you are still more or less expected to quit and fall off any career track – even in 2018! 

I think it’s a question of degree, however, because we still see this type of attitudes in Australia. The top echelons of many law firms in Australia are still very much dominated by male lawyers and, in fact, lack diversity generally, not just gender diversity. But these issues are much more pronounced in Japan. Even though they have laws in many ways similar to Australia’s laws to try and stop such discrimination, it still does happen. I think for Japanese female lawyers in particular, they really value the independence of having a standalone qualification.

2. How have you combined your Japanese skills with your legal career? 

I studied Japanese throughout high school in Queensland. It was the time of the Japanese Bubble, so everyone thought it would be a good idea to learn the language. It was an economic move by my school.

Then when it came to going to university… I wasn’t necessarily set on doing law. But my parents and teachers thought it would be good for me to have a professional qualification and I got the grades to study law. I thought that studying Japanese as well would make my university studies more interesting!

During my dual degrees, I took some time off and went to Japan on exchange and then I thought, actually, “I don’t want to finish law”. There wasn’t that much going on in Brisbane at the time (it was the early 90s).

Instead, I came down to Melbourne and did a bit more study at Monash University in Japanese language, focusing on interpreting and translating. That’s when I met the professors at the Asian Law Centre at Melbourne Law School. That was a life changing moment for me. The opportunities here at the Melbourne Law School, were so far ahead than anywhere else in Australia at the time – and that situation continues to be the case in many ways today. 

I ended up coming back to the law faculty (as it then was) to finish my law degree and graduate from the University of Melbourne. Thanks to the Asian Law Centre, I could see a career path with law and Japanese.

3. You work at a multinational corporation in its Melbourne office as Associate General Counsel. How does being in-house differ from private practice? What advice would you give to students looking towards a career as legal counsel?

In many ways, working in-house is the same as working in private practice. You are still advising people, you still have your duties to the court and your duties to the client. The client is the company itself and that can be quite a difficult thing in-house, because you need to be careful not to get caught up in the company’s strategic goals to the extent that you neglect your other duties as a lawyer. I found that this tension came up less in private practice where you’re expected to be more of a technical expert, or the client and your superiors are hiring you for your ability to get things done. When you are in-house, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing every single thing about a legal issue, because how can you? You’re usually covering lots of different areas. But if you don’t understand the business need or personalities, you aren’t doing your job. Once again, it’s a question of degree…

I have also noticed a huge difference culturally. When you’re in a law firm, you are working with a bunch of people, and no matter how diverse they are, they’ve all come out of law school. They’re all still swimming in the same direction as you. For example, if you’re in the projects team, or finance team, you are trying to get the transaction closed. You don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things to people or taking people ‘on the journey’, so to speak. Everyone also has a common base in terms of the legal language. I’m not saying everyone a law firm is the same, we all have our different backgrounds, but we have a basic common education, training and a vocational understanding. 

Contrast that comfort zone with the situation in a company, where everyone has their own KPIs and their own agendas. This aspect of in-house is not necessarily a negative thing, because it’s what makes a company work. For example, marketing comes to you and all they want to do is get their advertisement out, they’d want to do it legally, but the fact that you’re telling them that they have a privacy issue is not helping them to have a ‘happy day’. 

When you are in-house you are also likely to deal with people who have other educational backgrounds, for example, commerce degrees, marketing degrees and no degrees. You can spend a lot of time and emotional effort taking people with you and you have to decide what matters and what doesn’t, in ways you probably didn’t have to think about too much in a law firm. 

In terms of when it might be best to transfer from private practice to in-house like I did, I don’t think that there’s any perfect time and there’s many people who go the other way these days too. For students looking towards a career in-house, you don’t necessarily need to spend time in private practice. I greatly value the time that I had at Blake Dawson (now Ashurst) in private practice. For me, to get into the area I’m currently in, that experience was very important. But it depends on where you want to end up. I don’t think getting into a large law firm is the so-called ‘be all and end all’. 

I think there are so many more options these days that you need to be very strategic about where you want to go in the first instance. Having said that, the training that you are going to get in a leading Australian law firm is fantastic. Everywhere you go you will always have that experience on your CV. But if you want to go somewhere where that such experience doesn’t matter, then why bother?

I also want to emphasise the in the 21st Century, we will all be working for a very long time! It’s most likely that you are going to have more than one career. You need the flexibility to imagine what that might look like in the future at any given time. I know it’s stressful thinking about clerkships and that first graduate role, but I suspect that students today will look back at that graduate recruitment experience in say twenty years and think, ‘been there done that, moved on, it wasn’t such a big deal after all’.

4. What is your favourite memory of Melbourne Law School?

Well I’m still here! I’ve been employed by Melbourne Law School in some form or other since 1997. One of the best things about MLS is the alumni and connections it has bought to me. Having a group of like-minded people with a respect for the law and what an institution like MLS can do, has been a very nice thing. 

In terms of individual memories, I very much enjoyed my time as a research assistant at the Asian Law Centre. I had never experienced the collegiality of the people at the Centre and the capacity to follow your passion anywhere else. 

The Asian Law Centre gave me an opportunity to do something that I didn’t think I’d be able to do in the 1990s. Time and again in my career, it has been my Asian capacity that has led to the next step in my career. That difference really set me up for a career. 


Interview by Amy Clements

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