Working the Law: 2014 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards

| September 10, 2014

Fay Calderone’s unique approach to managing people, clients and budgets has seen 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.

“Success always starts with passion and an unrelenting drive to make it work,” says Calderone.

Calderone, 36, joined the Parramatta based legal firm MatthewsFolbigg Lawyers in 2007, establishing a workplace relations team. She was promoted to Director in 2010 and in January 2012 was offered an equity partnership, making her one of the 10 owners.

The group, which was rebranded as Workplace Solutions in 2013 increased top line revenue 220 percent over a three-year period.

Changing management and cash flow paradigms

“I genuinely enjoy growing and leading a team and am rewarded and inspired by mentoring the lawyers in my team, and watching them grow as practitioners,” she says. “I believe people do really well in supportive environments doing things they’re genuinely interested in, which is usually the things they’re also really good at. To foster this we dispensed with individual budgets, which enables us to play to our strengths not only in our legal training but in our diverse backgrounds and expertise.”

This paradigm shift away from individual budgets complements the Workplace Solutions practice’s client-service models, which includes Platinum Partner Packages, retainers and compliance training packages aimed at commoditising some of the group’s service offerings and giving clients certainty of costs.

“Legal practices are often burdened with cash flow challenges but our practice has the privilege and benefit of mature relationships with clients who understand we do the work and bill as we go, which is better than handing clients a ‘surprise’ bill at the end of a large matter – the surprise also being with the lawyers when the client never returns,” she says. “The Platinum Partner Packages are excellent from a cash flow perspective as they give the practice a periodic baseline income as are the compliance packages which provide cash in advance of the work being done.”

Recalibrating the brand

The decision to launch the practice group was driven by a tightening market. During the global financial crisis the firm’s workload had increased as it worked with its client base through thousands of redundancies. However, in the two years after, the market became much more challenging.

“Our SME client base in particular was becoming more cost sensitive and demanding more certainty of cost,” says Calderone. “During this period we also identified a threat to our more proactive compliance work – the bread and butter of an employment practice – with the emergence of non-legal service providers. We made the decision to re-brand the practice, develop a solutions-based service offering partnering with non-legal service providers and incorporate platinum partnerships which provided cost effective and practical hybrid solutions for our clients, and a point of differentiation in our market.”

Calderone suggests starting any re-brand with a good reason. This gives clients, prospects and employees something to be drawn to. “It means really listening to and being responsive to the market for both clients and talent, but as nothing is static, it also means fostering a relationship of ongoing communication to ensure these needs continue to be met,” she says.

Employees in focus

Looking forward, she sees employee engagement, retention and incentives among the key challenges for business owners and the legal industry in general.

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

She’s seeing more female lawyers coming through – excluding Directors, about 80 percent of lawyers at Matthews Folbigg Lawyers are female. “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 young lawyers coming through the ranks, 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.

Calderone undertook a double degree in law and commerce (specialising in human resource management and industrial relations) at the University of Western Sydney. By the time she’d graduated in 2000, she’d spent two years working full time in a busy litigation practice, something that helped her secure a job as a solicitor at Gadens Lawyers. She was there for two years, followed by four years as a lawyer at Workplace Law before joining MatthewsFolbigg Lawyers.

She relishes the variety that comes with workplace law as she acts for employers in a broad range of industries including SMEs and not-for-profits on workplace issues such as employee entitlements, performance counselling, disciplinary matters, discrimination, OHS issues, bullying and harassment.

Calderone avoids working around the clock, putting up clear boundaries between her home and work life. As a mother of two young boys she’s learnt to compartmentise: working hard while she’s in the office so she can get home at a reasonable hour to spend time with her family.

She doesn’t work weekends and resists taking files home except in exceptional circumstances. Achieving this balance is also possible, she says, thanks to an incredibly supportive husband who works four days a week and splits the childcare.

Winning the NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Award in her category was a great honour for Calderone, making her stop and reflect on how far she has come. “For people who already work with us, it validates they’re dealing with someone who is reputable while raising our profile among the wider business community,” she says. “It was also fantastic to have the team at the ceremony as we truly work and deliver as a team and it was important their contributions were also recognised.”

This story was first published by NAB Business View and is republished here with kind permission of the author. Read more Business View articles.