Melissa Kirby, Associate General Counsel, Honeywell
How long have you been working for your current company?
Almost 5 years now!
Briefly explain your career history and what lead you to your current position.
If you could imagine a confluence of some of the modern world’s most profound economic, political and environmental changes, the brightest people in the legal profession and the opportunity to be a truly global citizen, you would have my career.
My current position in Honeywell as in-house counsel for Asia Pacific, Middle East and sub-Sahara Africa can be directly linked to student days at the Australian National University and the professors who pushed excellence in both law and Asian Studies. This opened the doors to the opportunities I have enjoyed since then.
Like many women, my career path has not been linear or straightforward. I have spent time in private practice, academia, briefly in Government, and now the corporate sector. Along the way, I’ve always asked myself “Am I being a good lawyer?” and also “Am I being a good human being?”.
Working for Honeywell has the advantage of engaging legal work and good people who I am proud to serve.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
There is an equal tie for the two achievements which I am proudest of:
Firstly, the fact that during my corporate career none of my matters have been to trial.
And secondly, the astounding achievements that have come out of the mentoring activities I have been involved in. To bear witness to what people can achieve is truly humbling.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
The greatest challenge for me – and for others at this time – is how to continue to serve my clients with quality I can be proud of, with ever-diminishing resources. The way I deal with this is to teach and empower more junior colleagues to stretch beyond their years and at the same time constantly reinvent my own role to ensure that I am currently an asset to my client and not an irrelevant relic.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
The wonderful thing about being a lawyer is that we are the profession that figured out how to fill 36 hours in a day! But seriously, the discipline of keeping an eye on the clock has done wonders for allocating time. I have never really paid much attention to work-life balance; for me, it is all parts of the life continuum. It is quite simple, really; I figure out what is really important, get great people around to support me and know the ebbs and flows of my own energy patterns enough to know when to be generous and when to be frugal with my time and energy.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
If I had to list all the wonderful mentors and role models I have had, I’d need an extra page. Professor John McMillan taught me to persevere and to exercise my brain; I was in awe of former Chief Justice Anthony Mason and Professor Terence Daintith. Being exposed to this level of intellectual horsepower inspired me to really question, analyse and debate. One of my dearest mentors is Lena Chi, formally of the Department of Justice of Hong Kong. Lena has taught me what I really needed to know to be a good lawyer – and that it isn’t all about law!
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Personally, I think there is a lot of benefit from encouraging people to think of their advantages rather than their disadvantages. For corporations to set the tone in terms of behavioural expectations and norms is certainly welcome.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
In a sense, being female has been something of a non-issue in my career. While I have had instances where a partner in a law firm mistook me for a secretary (and handed me a tape to type up), I’ve also realised the perceptions and, whether they be right or wrong, worked with them. I’ve found that while stereotypes aren’t always accurate, they are persistent and predictable. Once I realised this, I have had a lot of fun being female in the traditionally male engineering, mining and infrastructure fields I’ve worked in.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
With more women coming into the legal profession, I have been pleasantly surprised to see the quiet work place innovations being put in place to cater for a variety of life situations and preferences. The challenge for women will be how to take advantage of these innovations while still providing excellent service to their clients.