Name: Rebecca Williams
Firm: Watson Farley & Williams
Year qualified: 1997
What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee?
I qualified in Australia in 1997 and practised in New South Wales for four and a half years before moving to the UK in 2001. I have many vivid memories of my first year as a junior lawyer. It was a formative time! However, I’ll never forget unpacking the telephone in my office on my very first day at work. I joined a ‘start up’ law firm founded by two partners from much larger and more established law firms. Their drive, vigour and enterprising spirit had a massive impact on me. It was exciting to be part of building something new where everyone was invested in and working toward a shared vision.
I also recall (with a bit of a shudder) the first time I appeared in the Supreme Court in New South Wales. Even though it was a simple ‘by consent’ mention in relation to a vacated application, I endlessly rehearsed the two sentences I had to say. When I arrived, I had to make my way through a crowd of predominantly older male barristers and I asked a friend from law school to leave the court room during my ‘appearance’ because I was so nervous!
It seems ridiculous now that I was so anxious, but it was a very intimidating environment for someone straight out of law school and the judges did little to put ‘fresh meat’ at ease.
What is the wisest thing anyone ever said to you (and who said it)?
When I was at something of a crossroad in my life and career my mother’s good friend, Margaret Meagher, a psychologist, told me that it was possible to change your neural pathways in a matter of six weeks, that I needed to identify the things that I really wanted out of life and focus on self-actualization. For me that was an epiphany and really empowering.
Who (for better or worse) has been the most influential person in your career? Why?
So many people have been influential. However, if I had to choose just two positive examples it would be: my mother’s good friend Sarah Black and my first boss James Riley.
Sarah commenced studying law as a mature student at the age of 39 after marrying at 19 and having had two children. She went on to forge a very successful career as a lawyer and is still practicing today at the age of 72. Sarah demonstrated to me that age and gender are no barriers to success. Sarah ‘moved’ my admission to the Supreme Court of New South Wales and remains a role model and friend.
I was the first junior lawyer James employed when starting up a boutique insurance litigation firm in 1997 in Australia. He was an excellent but exacting mentor and I still seek his advice when faced with challenges. In my first years of practice James used to undertake ‘spot’ random checks of the files I was running. The nature of the practice was high volume and called for rigorous levels of organisation.
This was not my strong suit and after one less than favourable file review I was dispatched to an external ‘Time and Paper Management’ course. I had to stand up in front of a group of strangers, announce my name and why I’d been sent on the course. I also had to draw a picture of my desk.
It was mortifying but helped me with organisation and made me a lot more disciplined. I would not say I am completely rehabilitated but I’ve come a very long way!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?
Be authentic and don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through (within reason!). There isn’t a one-size fits all to being a successful lawyer. I feel I am proof of that: I made partner at 46 after having started a family and my office is dominated by prints that say: “You have as many hours in a day as Beyonce” and “I am woman hear me roar” (words to live by). Strive to find the right firm/platform. I am lucky that Watson Farley & Williams allows people to be individuals.
Teamwork and humility are essential. Recognise that you are only ever as good as the team around you and behave accordingly. Surround yourself with clever, able people, allow them to play to their individual strengths and most importantly ensure that they feel valued and that their contributions toward a common vision are recognised.
Finally, you have to advocate for yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.
What’s your best friend from law school doing now?
I didn’t have a single ‘best friend’ at law school. I had a wide circle of friends who are all doing very different things now.
However, of the four friends with whom I remain in most close contact; one is an award-winning garden designer, another is in-house counsel for Apple for the Pacific region and the other two are partners at Ashurst and Clifford Chance in Sydney.