Sandra Steele, a construction and infrastructure partner at K&L Gates and winner of the construction category at the Partner of the Year Awards, told Lawyers Weekly that specialisation is the key to supercharging a legal career.
"You need to specialise and you also need to understand the industry that you're in," she said.
"If you can't speak the language of your clients, and you don't truly understand it, you'll never really be the best."
For Ms Steele, the key to developing this knowledge was spending six years as an in-house lawyer at Lendlease before moving back to private practice.
"I'd been in private practice for 10 years and I wanted to learn more about the industry," she said.
"At the time, I had a number of peers who were encouraging but others were discouraging, saying it would be the biggest mistake I'd make. But I'm so glad I ignored that advice."
She believes that much legal advice is given "in a vacuum, where you're just brought into give ad hoc advice".
By contrast, an understanding of the industry from the client’s point of view has enabled her to address all facets of the transaction within the context of the specific industry.
She also encouraged lawyers – particularly female lawyers – to join industry associations to build up their networks within their chosen practice area.
Over the course of her career, Ms Steele has been an active member of the National Association of Women in Construction, including a six-year stint as national president.
"Women don't seem to have as many networks as men do, so for women to find their feet in conditions like that – for example, where you're chairing a board – is a brilliant opportunity," she said.
"Joining an industry association allows you to meet other women and men who are involved in the industry and develop your networks that way."
She also pointed to mentorship as a critical enabler for young lawyers, crediting her own mentor, Frank Cahill, with taking her "from a typical trajectory to a really exciting career".
She now mentors a number of young lawyers herself through the K&L Gates program.
Her top advice to mentees is to be frank with the ambitions and "reach for the stars".
"You’re always going to be your own best advocate," she said.
While construction remains a male-dominated industry, she advised young women not to be put off working in the sector.
"There are a lot of misconceptions around what it's like to be a woman in the construction industry around whether you can do the job and whether there are interesting opportunities," she said.
"There is a lot of work to be done, but I've really enjoyed my work and I would encourage more women to get into the industry."
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