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Corporate Express general counsel Prue Gilbert

Corporate Express general counsel Prue Gilbert

Balancing a satisfying career with interests outside the workplace has proved to be more than just a personal goal for Corporate Express general counsel Prue Gilbert. A lot of lawyers talk…

Balancing a satisfying career with interests outside the workplace has proved to be more than just a personal goal for Corporate Express general counsel Prue Gilbert.

A lot of lawyers talk about the goal of achieving a work/life balance, but Prue Gilbert decided to do something about it.

In 2005, five years into a successful private practice career at Deacons, she decided to jump ship and take up a position as legal counsel at ASX-listed business supply company Corporate Express. She was promoted to general counsel within a year.

Gilbert says her desire to maintain a work/life balance was an important driver behind her decision to make the switch to an in-house role, and this goal has become more than just a personal priority. Gilbert wants this goal achieved by women right across the company.

It was for this reason that she established the Women in Leadership Council at Corporate Express last year, an endeavour which recently saw her named as a finalist in the 2009 NSW Women Lawyers Achievement Awards.

"I wanted to try and understand why there were so few women in leadership positions at Corporate Express. At that stage around 48 per cent of employees were female, yet we had only one female on our board, no females on our executive, and only three females in the leadership group," she explains.

The initiative kicked off with an all-employee survey aimed at identifying staff views on equal opportunity in the workplace. Gilbert then headed up a series of nationwide focus groups with female employees to gain an understanding of what employees thought the business should be doing to develop and retain its female workforce.

From there, the council has begun implementing programs and policies in an effort to break down the barriers to female advancement within the company. These include benchmarking job roles as part of the business's remuneration strategy, undertaking training on the company's policies for selection and promotion and improving the flexible work practices policy. The next endeavour to be rolled out is a Business Woman of the Year program to recognise the achievements of the company's female employees.

The Council's work is paying dividends, and the legal team is a good case in point. Gilbert works directly with the company secretary who works two days a week, a solicitor who works three days a week (two in the office and one from home), and a paralegal who works two days a week from home, her hours spread out flexibly over the week. "With two and a half thousand employees nationally, the business - and corporations in general - seem to be better able to accommodate flexible work practices," she explains.

She says her current role is diverse, involving "anything that has a legal bone in its body", covering issues ranging from property, consumer and supplier contracts, to finance, trade practices and employment law issues. This diversity, she says, is one of the highlights of the role. "I love working with all the different people within the business. We work in open plan and there's a constant stream of people coming to you for advice. A lot of it is about helping them with strategy, being commercially minded and identifying and advising them on issues that affect legal risk," she says.

On a personal note, the move to Corporate Express has enabled Gilbert to successfully balance a career with her other interests, including running half marathons and taking part in the Noosa Triathlon, studying an MBA, and having her first baby. "It's definitely enabled me to have that flexibility. So whilst I'm on call at all times, I can definitely manage the work commitments and still be able to do the things that I enjoy," she says.

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