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A lawyer's journey across the professions

A lawyer's journey across the professions

Ilana Atlas was once a managing partner of Mallesons Stephen Jaques, but as she tells Sarah O'Carroll, it was a role in HR at one of Australia's largest banks that delivered the highlight of her…

Ilana Atlas was once a managing partner of Mallesons Stephen Jaques, but as she tells Sarah O'Carroll, it was a role in HR at one of Australia's largest banks that delivered the highlight of her career

From becoming one of the first female managing partners of a law firm in Australia to clinching the top spot in HR of Westpac, the career of Ilana Atlas has spanned many roles and cities. Atlas officially retired Friday 29 January after six years with the company. However, even at the twilight of a prominent and successful legal and HR career, Ilana Atlas still does not believe she has reached the pinnacle of her professional life. In fact, speaking with Lawyers Weekly towards the end of her tenure in December, the Westpac head of HR says she doesn't believe that she ever will feel as though she has reached the top.

"I've never felt I've reached the pinnacle of my career. There is always something else to do, always something else to achieve," she says.

And it is probably just this attitude that has led Atlas on a career path that saw her become only the second female partner of law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques in 1985, and one of the first female managing partners in Australia.

Most recently in her career she has stepped into the coveted role of group executive people & performance at Westpac and her working life has culminated in what she describes as the highlight of her career - working for the past two years alongside one of the most influential women in the world, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly.

The move from law to HR

Making the decision to move from law into HR wasn't a difficult decision for Atlas because, right from the beginning of her career, she always had a passion about people and human resources.

After graduating from high school in Perth many people suggested to Atlas that she pursue a career in law because of her talent in debating.

"I wasn't particularly passionate about pursuing a law career - but it seemed like a good thing to do at the time," she says.

And given her success in law those people were clearly right in their advice. Atlas stayed in law until she moved into HR in 2003 and during that time developed a successful career that took her from Perth to New York to Sydney.

"I loved my career in law, I had a wonderful time while at Mallesons," says Atlas.

But there remained a burning desire to fulfil her passion for the people side of business and when David Morgan (former Westpac CEO) suggested to Atlas that she might like to take on the HR role there, she jumped at the chance because she saw it as an opportunity to do what she really loved - to combine her passion for people with her career.

"I think it's very rare you get the opportunity to really do what you love," she says. "But it was the opportunity I was given, so I grabbed it."

Because this was her passion, Atlas felt the transition from law into HR was quite easy.

"I've always been someone who's been interested in people - what drives them - and helping people reach their potential," she says. "The skills I had as a lawyer have been incredibly useful when moving into HR. You need a good sense of judgment and a high level of commercial acumen. The difference is, within HR you really need a high level of empathy and understanding of what drives people. And that's the additional dimension."

Two very different professions

One of the big differences for Atlas when moving from law into HR was the difference in people's perspective of the job as a profession. And this, she says, is going to be one of the most important aspects for HR to consider in the future.

She believes that HR really needs to establish itself as a profession and take pride in its work. HR, she believes, should be considered a profession just as law and accounting are considered professions. And one of the ways this can be achieved, she says, is through education.

"It is very important for HR practitioners to see themselves as professionals and part of a profession," she says. "It's very important that they are clear about what is required to be a really good HR professional.

"And it's a whole raft of skills and experience that it takes to be a great HR professional. These range from commercial acumen through to high-level skills with people, excellent strategic skills and an understanding of processes and systems. So there's a wide range of skills required from HR professionals and it is important that they have a great pride in what they do and the capabilities required of it."

Atlas says that while there is already a certain level of pride among HR practitioners, the evolution of the profession must start with education.

"There needs to be more university courses that specialise in HR," she says. "People should want to get university qualifications either undergraduate or postgraduate in HR. I believe this is very valuable."

The Westpac story

Atlas has ended her corporate career on a high, but says that almost all of the last two years have been the best vocational experience she has had.

"The last two years have been the highlight of my working career, I would say," she says. "The opportunity to work with a new CEO (Kelly) has been fantastic and the opportunity to work on the merger with St.George has been wonderful.

"Just the opportunity to work with a CEO who is going about transforming the organisation from a cultural perspective has been a great opportunity and a privilege."

Working alongside Westpac's Kelly - who has been voted one of the most influential women in the world - has been a real learning experience for Atlas, but at the end of the day, she says, Kelly is just like everybody else and not somebody to fear.

"She's incredibly down to earth. She's a mother with four kids and is challenged by the things that every other person in the organisation is challenged by," says Atlas. "The thing that drives Gail is people and customers and that's what she's passionate about and she's totally authentic about it. She's very approachable."

For Atlas, one of the most important factors throughout her career when choosing a place to work was to ensure that her company's values aligned with her own personal values.

"The Westpac values, for example, are delighting customers, achievement, integrity, one team and valuing each other - and they resonate with me totally at a personal level," she says.

"Also, the law firm that I worked with was a very good values alignment for me. I've been very fortunate in that the two significant careers I've had I've felt totally at home."

"I would say to any aspiring lawyer, that, if you have the opportunity, do what you're passionate about and love, because I think that the alignment with what is important to you personally to what you do professionally is just incredibly important."

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