When young lawyers hear Nicola Wakefield Evans has spent about 30 years with the one firm, the King & Wood Mallesons partner says she knows what they’re thinking: “you poor woman”.
But speaking at the Women on Boards Learning with Leaders event in Sydney recently, Wakefield Evans described just how diverse her career’s been while spending three decades with the one employer. She’s worked for Mallesons through the evolution of the firm to what it is today in four different offices and held a number of senior leadership positions.
The key’s been her “adaptability”, she says — being able to apply her skills and experience to opportunities as they emerge, and leading on a number of firsts in the firm. Wakefield Evans was the first woman with children at Mallesons to be appointed partner, the first granted paid maternity leave and the first posted overseas.
And it’s this adaptability that Wakefield Evans says helped her land a non-executive board position on the country’s largest transport and logistics company, Toll Holdings. Appointed just over 12 months ago, Wakefield Evans is the first woman to join the Toll board. “Being a woman was a bonus, but getting the position really came down to my experience in Asia,” she says, referring to the four years she’s spent in Hong Kong.
As such, Wakefield Evans is passionate about ensuring women can adapt to new cultures and environments, and understand the value of working overseas. “It’s never too late” she says. “I was in my mid 40s when I first transferred [to Hong Kong], and I was the last person you’d expect to go, especially with four children.”
She’s also vigilant about what she describes as her “responsibility for the women behind me”. Having broken through on so many firsts, in law and on boards, she says she’s always felt the pressure to behave better than her male colleagues.
“You have a burden to get it right. If you don’t get it right, you scupper the chances for women coming up behind you,” she says.
Wakefield Evans found that even working for a progressive legal employer, some of the firsts she’s achieved with Mallesons were, at the time, considered “a very big deal for the firm”. When she was given paid maternity leave, the wives of her partners were some of the biggest critics of the move. And when she was appointed partner, she recalls comments like “what happens if she has more children?” (she went on to have four).
Earlier, when she was offered an opportunity to work in New York in the late 1980s, partners in the firm first checked with her father that such an offer was alright with him. “The changes in my profession have been astronomical,” she says.
The changes have been dramatic in all but one area: increasing the number of female partners in law firms. Having graduated from law in the 1980s in a class that was evenly split between men and women, Wakefield Evans says the low proportion of women partners in law firms is still a major problem across the profession.
King & Wood Mallesons has recently committed to a 2015 gender target that it hopes will see the firm achieve a 30% female partner ratio, up from its current ratio of 25%.