International Women’s Day 2021: amazing stories

Emma Woolley

Emma Woolley’s Australian husband promised good weather and a great lifestyle when he proposed a move to Melbourne. Emma arrived knowing no-one, but 15 years later she has built up a leading private client practice, is heavily involved in giving back to the community and has even made her peace with Melbourne’s notoriously fickle weather.

Hall & Wilcox Partner Emma Woolley headshot
Emma Woolley

I’m originally from Jersey in the Channel Islands. I studied law in Bristol and then practised in Jersey for more than a decade. I met my Australian husband in Jersey while he was working there on a contract. He was keen to return to Australia and he lured me to Melbourne with promises of good weather.

I moved to a new country, knew no-one here beyond my husband, I had no relatives, friends or background here. As a foreign lawyer, I also had to requalify, so when we arrived I got started by going back to university to study the required subjects. I had a six-year-old child in primary school, but I was keen to get back into the workforce. I did some research and came across Hall & Wilcox partners, Keith James (now retired) and Andrew O’Bryan, who introduced me to the great people looking after private clients at Hall & Wilcox. I was delighted when I was offered a job with Hall & Wilcox. It was great to get back to work and meet new people in my new country. Once I got started, with the active support of my colleagues, I developed relationships, my practice and my reputation. When I moved here, I had thought that it would be a good chance to perhaps do something new and move away from the law, but it turned out being a lawyer and a private client lawyer is really what I enjoy.

No two matters are the same

I’ve always worked in the area of private clients, which is mostly looking after people and families around matters like family office matters, estate planning, asset protection, structure advice and dispute resolution. I like developing relationships and seeing the real impact of the legal advice I provide on the lives of individuals. As lawyers, we are all people helping people, even if our work is focused on the corporate end of town. But with private client work, you are dealing with the actual person whose life is being impacted by your advice. You get to see and be involved in real human stories. Every person is different so the work is ever changing and never are two matters the same. This makes for an interesting and challenging work life. I really enjoy this real human connection, developing long-term relationships with families and private individuals.

Giving back to the community

While I was growing up, my parents were both active in our community and involved in a number of ways in giving their time for causes with which they had a connection. I have been very fortunate to have great opportunity in life to access the highest standard in education and move through into a successful legal career. I was encouraged by my parents’ example to ensure that I made time in my life to use the advantages I have been given and take time to support the communities in which I work and live.

I have always looked for opportunities and today I have board roles in a range of organisations including the Australian Communities Foundation, Williamstown Football Club (a Victorian VFL club) and our own board at Hall & Wilcox.

I have learnt a huge amount from my experiences as a board member. It is a great opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, but also to learn from people who I wouldn’t normally come across and see how different organisations operate. It is also really enjoyable and a great chance to add to the balance of life. I certainly didn’t expect to be on the board of a football club when I hadn’t any idea of the rules when I moved here 17 years ago!

It’s important to have a diversity of opinions, voice and background on boards. Diversity is not at all limited to gender, but it is a big part of getting the balance right in my mind. I am pleased to be able to step forward and seek out challenges and take up board roles because by being a female leader I think I can show other women that not only are women represented at the highest levels of organisations, but also show women that this is something that is open and available for all women to aspire to. I believe that women and all people want to see themselves reflected in their leadership.

Being a role model

In the past, I would have dismissed the idea that I could be a ‘role model’ to anyone, as this sounds like talking yourself up a bit much, but now I absolutely do believe it. I moved to a new country, I successfully established myself in a career and I have developed a reputation not just as a lawyer, but as someone who is available to give more back into the lives of our people and communities. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to have mentored both male and female lawyers and I hope that I have encouraged them to get out of life and their career what they believe is right for them.

I think women tend to set higher expectations of themselves than anyone else in their work or community does of them. This means that they see themselves as not succeeding or even failing when they can’t live up to these expectations. I am not saying women shouldn’t challenge themselves to succeed, but really we should be kinder to ourselves and give ourselves a break more often!

Juggling work and life

Challenges around family exist no matter your gender. I grew up with my mother working full time in a demanding role. I learnt through that experience that with the right support this is something that can work. It is not always easy and I have seen steady change in attitudes in society towards women in the workforce. After the past year, I hope that there will be greater flexibility and understanding in all settings. It makes sense to me that people should be supported to ensure that the juggling of family and work never becomes too hard. If we support each other, there is a much greater chance that we will get the best outcome at home and in the workplace.

At Hall & Wilcox, I feel that support is there to help balance my life. I am fortunate in that my husband has always worked flexibly, which has meant we have mostly managed to keep our work life balanced. I feel that at Hall & Wilcox we have a great culture of trust. I always felt that it was trusted that I would give everything I could to my work and in return I would be supported. I might not have always been in the office in the traditional timing of 9 to 5, but people knew that if I wasn’t there, then I was somewhere else I had to be for my family.