International Women’s Day 2021: amazing stories

Bec Shelley

When Bec Shelley had her first child 15 years ago, she was the odd one out among her friends for choosing to stay at home. But an enlightened boss helped her pioneer a flexible work option that enabled her to keep her career on track. Bec is a partner in our insurance and government practices, based in our Canberra office. She shares her story.

Bec Shelley with her son Jack
Bec with her son Jack

Even though I come from a family of scientists, I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I must have told my year three teacher about my aspirations because she even wrote a note about it in my end-of-year diary!

After uni, I did a 12-month stint in a local Canberra firm where I did everything from criminal to family law. I moved to another law firm for three years, where I did NSW workers compensation work, and then I moved to the Australian Government Solicitor. I was in the litigation area and led the Commonwealth compensation team, as well as doing some immigration and public liability work.

Flexible working before it was a ‘thing’

I had my first baby while I was working at the Australian Government Solicitor. (I now have three children, aged 14, 13 and 10). I didn’t want to go back to work full time so I ended up striking an arrangement with a friend at a law firm that let me work from home while my children were little. I kept practising by working at night, after the children went to bed. This gave me the best of both worlds: I could be at home with the kids during the day and keep my career going at night.

I feel really lucky to have had that opportunity. My boss was very ahead of the curve in terms of his thinking and willingness to embrace flexible working arrangements. Of course, we didn’t call it that: flexible working wasn’t a thing then. It was just the arrangement we worked out. Sometimes I worked 40 hours a week, sometimes 20. My boss understood that you don’t have to be in the office from 9 to 5 to get work done and be productive for a client.

Odd one out

I was definitely the odd one out by wanting to be at home with the kids and not returning to work full time in the office. No men that I knew of were taking parental leave at the time. And interestingly there wasn’t support from other females either. But I knew I wanted to be with the kids for those early years because you never get those years back.

I’m happy to see that’s changed during my career. It’s not frowned on for dads to stay at home now. Women can take time out to have babies and not have to fear it’s the end of their career. There’s no reason for women not to make it all the way to the top. There is so much awareness in society about the so-called glass ceiling and the importance of having gender diversity on boards and female representation at all levels of an organisation. There is too much momentum for this to stop. As long as women have the choice as to how they manage their careers, that’s the important thing.

Making another move

In 2014, when my last baby started primary school, I returned to the office three days a week. I joined Hall & Wilcox in early 2017. I wasn’t unhappy at my previous firm but when the opportunity came up to join Hall & Wilcox’s growing Canberra office, I jumped at it. It gave me a chance to work in a new jurisdiction with new clients. You don’t get many opportunities like that when you’re 20 years into a career.

I really enjoy the cut and thrust of working in litigation. I like the pressure and the intensity of it, the exposure to clients and opposing lawyers, working hard to get a good result for my client.

I love the culture at Hall & Wilcox. The transparency from Managing Partner Tony Macvean and the firm’s leadership team is fantastic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing was kept secret. Everyone knew what was happening with their jobs and the workflows in the Firm and I think the knowledge helped relieve people’s stress. Everybody at Hall & Wilcox has an important role in the success of the firm and it truly is ‘one firm’ with great cross-collaboration between teams and practices.

Becoming a partner

As I mentioned before, it’s important that women have choice in their careers. But you have to make peace with your choices. I can’t stamp my feet that I didn’t become a partner until I was in my mid-40s when my friends from uni became partners 10 years ago. I was out of the office for eight years by my own choice. I kept up with the law and maintained my skills but I didn’t have the professional profile that I would have had being in an office. That was my choice, I don’t regret it and I got there in the end. Women have the world at their feet these days, my advice is to make the choices that work for you.