KWM special counsel urges senior lawyers to go out of their comfort zone

Rebecca Slater has enjoyed being “reverse-mentored” by junior lawyers

KWM special counsel urges senior lawyers to go out of their comfort zone
Rebecca Slater

Rebecca Slater was exposed to different areas of the law early on. She was drawn to a career in law due to her grandfather’s involvement in one of the final appeals to the Privy Council from Australia, and as a junior lawyer, assisted on a landmark IP rights case.

These days, Slater focuses on M&A transactions at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), where she was recently elevated from senior associate to special counsel in the firm’s latest promotions round. However, one thing she has been particularly proud of over the past year has been stretching herself by pitching in on a copyright case for the first time since she was a junior lawyer.

In this interview, Slater encourages lawyers, especially those who are more senior, to try something new “every so often.” She also talks benefiting from KWM’s “reverse-mentoring” initiative, the push towards mastering legaltech tools and what young lawyers seek from the profession today.

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What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

My grandfather fought a long legal battle to ensure that the local showgrounds were held as a community resource. The case was one of the last appeals to the Privy Council from Australia. He wasn’t a lawyer, but had an open, inquiring mind and a deep understanding of the workings of the Australian legal system. I didn't realise it at the time, but connecting the dots looking backwards, that’s probably when I decided to be a lawyer.

My favourite part of the job is my team. I am lucky to be part of a supportive and collaborative team. We help each other improve, celebrate each other’s successes and pitch in to share the load.

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

When I was a junior lawyer, I was part of a KWM team that assisted Richard Bell, a well-known Indigenous artist, in a copyright case. The Blackfella’s Guide to New York was to be an art film that depicted the people of New York as anthropological specimens. Mr Bell had engaged Tania Steele, a US citizen, to help him film the raw footage. Ms Steele later claimed ownership of the copyright in the film, threatened Mr Bell and his agent and caused a video-sharing website to remove a trailer of the film. Our team helped Mr Bell to establish ownership of the copyright in the film. The case was the first time an Australian court had awarded damages for the removal of third-party website content without legal justification.

Working on this case gave me an appreciation of the complexities that arise due to the international nature of IP law, and an understanding of the issues associated with protecting and enforcing IP rights worldwide.

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

We are seeing lots of cross-centre collaboration. It has been fantastic to be a part of big projects that are resourced out of all of our national offices. This is something the firm has always been good at, but since COVID-19, it has become the standard operating model.

I have been involved in the People Champion program at KWM since it was launched in 2019. The role is a fluid one. The goal is to keep an eye out for issues around the firm, both broader issues and individual concerns (appreciating that law firms can be demanding environments). I have always had a particular interest in humanity in the workplace, and that “human” element – EQ, whatever you want to call it – is becoming more important in the age of AI and automation.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

The firm is encouraging junior lawyers to “reverse-mentor” more senior lawyers in relation to technology tools. The junior lawyers in our team have embraced this role. I have enjoyed having them teach me how to be more efficient! They have also come up with some great ideas about tools that we can build for our clients.

KWM just launched an interesting initiative around legal tech “belts.” There are four levels – white to black – which any staff member can “earn” through training on a specific legal tool (like martial arts belts). We will be able to say things like “I’m a black belt in Legal Tech tool X” to easily communicate our level of technical proficiency.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so, and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

I have not done litigation work since I was a junior lawyer (the Richard Bell case I describe above was probably my last foray), but I found myself assisting as the sole senior associate on a copyright case this year. We got a great result for the client (yay!), but what I was most proud of was pushing myself out of my comfort zone (and well into my stretch zone).

I think as you get more senior there is a tendency to not try as many new things because you consider yourself too “specialised” or that trying new things will be time-consuming. I would encourage people to try something that takes them outside their comfort zone every so often.

What should the profession and law firms focus more on?

The industry and the profession have changed significantly through my career. Most law firms seem to be recognising the value of people-focussed initiatives, particularly around diversity, which is essential. Providing growth opportunities that don’t fit squarely within the typical lawyer skill set, and appreciating that developing and championing those different skills will fill their workplace with more diverse and valuable practitioners.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

Law firms are still, for the most part, very much stuck in an historical operating model. The billable hour, the bright-line test of what it is to “be a lawyer,” and the linear progression of lawyers as they climb the ranks are relics of this operating model.

The motivations of young lawyers entering the profession have also changed. Law school graduates are looking for a career that will make them happy and satisfied long-term, and for many, this is no longer linked to status, prestige or making big bucks.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

Something entirely non-legal – my sister is having her first child, so I am looking forward to meeting my little niece or nephew.


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