10 August 2023
In this mini-series, we share inspiring stories of women working at the intersection of innovation, law and technology.
In this episode, Ashurst Digital Economy Counsel Dora Guslitser is joined by Maria Marinelli, General Counsel at Bupa Asia Pacific.
In their discussion, Maria talks about her transition from private practice to in-house counsel and reflects on the skills she's picked up along the way. Maria also reflects on the barriers she’s faced (and overcome), the importance of pursuing growth and the trailblazers who paved the way for her to succeed. She also talks about the importance of celebrating the small wins and shares some career advice for junior lawyers.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should seek legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.
Hello, and welcome to Ashurst Legal Outlook and this special Women in Tech miniseries. I'm Dora Guslitser and I'm a counsel in Ashurst Digital Economy team. In today's episode, you'll hear my conversation with Maria Marinelli, General Counsel of Bupa Australia and New Zealand.
Before we hear that conversation, though, it's important to explain that, in Australia we acknowledge at the start of podcasts when we are speaking to you and the country First Nations people who are part of the oldest continuous living civilization on earth and who never ceded sovereignty.
I'd like to pay my respects and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the various lands on which we meet today. I acknowledge that I am joining this podcast from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to elders both past and present and to all First Nations people listening today.
And so to today's episode, which is part of season two of our Women in Tech miniseries. In this series, we share the stories of inspiring women working at the intersection of innovation, law and technology. And today's guest, Maria Marinelli, most certainly fits that bill.
I'm absolutely delighted to share this conversation with Maria, who talked me through her career journey, the challenges she has faced along the way, the lessons she has learnt and much, much more. So without further ado, here's our conversation.
So hi, Maria. Thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really, really excited to speak with you. We've known each other a really long time. I actually calculated today, it's about 17 years ago that we met, if you could believe it. And that was when I first joined Ashurst as a junior article clerk and I settled in your team.
You were a Partner in the Technology Legal Team at the time, and you kind of took me under your wing, for which I was so grateful. And I learnt so, so much from you. Even to this day, I think back to your pearls of wisdom. And I think you made me a better lawyer for it, having worked with you. So I'm just so excited to share your journey and your story with our audience today. And so how have you been since all that time?
Well, you made me feel very old when you said the 17 years. I was like, "God, has it been that long?" How have I been? I've been busy. So busy doing lots of different things. I thought Ashurst, nothing could beat being busier than what I was there. But I actually think being a general counsel of a large multinational trumps that. Actually feel like I'm busier these days. So, a lot has changed and nothing's changed as well. So it all just depends.
And so let's go back in history a little because I'd really love the audience to hear about your journey because you've had a really, really amazing career. And as I mentioned, you started off back all those years ago, you were a partner in the Ashurst team, the Tech team. And then eventually, you moved in-house and ultimately now the general council at Bupa. So tell us about that, your journey from Partner to ultimately General Counsel.
I think for me, my career journey has not been one of those ones where you plan what you're going to achieve every step of the way and what your milestones are. So I feel like a lot of it has been things that I have fallen into rather than things that I have chased. There's people that love to plan. I'm just like, "Let's see what happens. Let me just get the most of the opportunity or the position that I'm in now and then we'll see what the next step is from there."
So when I left Ashurst I was like, "I'm interested more in the end-to-end of a business." And I thought I'll take time off and then I'll do an MBA. And that never really worked out because the day I left Ashurst, the very next day I started up a consultancy and I was still doing legal work. Then I ended up doing a six-month position at Bupa, and it was just to help them out with a particular project.
Had a good time there but really didn't enjoy the position I was in and I thought I'll move on. And then there was a restructure. Stayed in the legal team. And here we go, years later, I'm the General Counsel at Bupa. So again, just to prove the point, you don't have to plan every step of your career. Sometimes opportunities present themselves, and it's a matter of going for them, as opposed to necessarily planning for them.
And did you find there were big differences between those different roles that you had? So from private practice, to then running your own consultancy to then being in-house. What were the key differences and challenges, if any, that you faced there?
I think the key differences were when you're in... And the first step was going from being a Partner in a law firm with lots of resources and people and technology at your disposal, to then going into a consultancy where it was just myself to begin with. I did have a couple of subcontractors. You really notice the difference, a huge difference in terms of having that support behind you.
You're on your own, which gives you a lot of freedom, but at the same time, it does limit you in terms of the kinds of things that you can take on. So I couldn't take on big matters because I just physically couldn't basically resource up for it. Then moving into in-house, completely different skill set in a sense that you're more than just a subject matter expert. You're there to provide business input as a whole.
And like I said before, you do see the end-to-end. And your opinion as a professional with a brain and with an opinion becomes just as, if not more, important than the legal skills or the legal advice that you're giving. And for me, that was the thing that really attracted me to being in-house because I've got an opinion on everything and it's really good to be able to express it.
And I think the most satisfying thing for me of being in-house is that I do get to play a big part in how the business is run. So it's not just being a subject matter expert, but being on the executive team, you can really help shape things. And that makes it all the more interesting. And you have to know when you're a partner or when you're in a large law firm, you're a great expert in that particular area that you specialise in.
But in terms of seeing the bigger picture and all the different other areas of law and parts of business and corporate structures and governance, and dealing with boards and dealing with overseas stakeholders, in my case, given that we're owned by a British parent, there's a lot more that you have to learn and you have to know about. So the term, general counsel, it is true, it's general. You've got to know a little bit about a lot of things.
And that stakeholder management side of things is really important, and that's the bit that I enjoy. At the end of the day, organisations are a collection of people, and it's how you get along with people and how you influence people and how you give them the information they need. That's really important. So you get to play a pretty big role in that respect and I thought that that played to my strengths.
It sounds like you've just mentioned there's so many new skills that you learnt moving in-house that perhaps you didn't hone-in on at your time in private practice, including, I imagine as well, shifting your area of specialty. Because, for our listeners' benefit, you were, primarily for most of your career, an IT telco law expert, one of the best in the industry known for your skill in that.
And then you moved to a health business. And you mentioned to me recently that you now consider yourself to be more of a health lawyer than a tech lawyer. And that happened pretty late on in your career. So I imagine that may have been daunting at the time. And I know many young lawyers sometimes come to a crossroads where they think, "Oh, perhaps I didn't settle in the right team," or "I want to do something else."
But then they get a bit scared or fearful to try and adapt and do something different or even to do with the Common, for example. And I remember the days when you sent me on to the Common all those years ago. I was terrified because I felt like I was going into the deep end of the swimming pool. So what advice would you have to junior lawyers like that, who are thinking about doing something outside of their comfort zone?
I think go for it. You're never too old to learn. And in fact, my motto is, "So long as I'm learning something new every day, I will keep coming into work." The minute you stop learning is the minute that you think, "I have to make a change." Because that's the whole thing, whether it's professionally developing or developing as a person, you need to give yourself new experiences and you do need to challenge yourself.
And that will be scary. And when I originally went to Bupa, I was meant to be helping with the IT transformation of the business. So it made sense because that was my specialty. And then, as I got there, you realised that you're part of an organisation that is providing healthcare services, and technology is just one component of it. But overall, what are we providing? A better health experience for our customers so that they can live longer, healthier, happier lives as our purpose is.
So really learning more about the health industry was super important. And in part of learning about the health industry, obviously being a lawyer in the legal team, I need to understand the regulatory environment behind it and all the relevant laws. So it was daunting. And there were times when I was just like, "What am I doing? Do I enjoy doing this? My first love is tech, why am I doing this?"
But there's such a great role that technology can play in the delivery of health services. And I think during COVID, we really learnt that, having to rely on telehealth appointments and that kind of thing. So even if it's an enabler of the provision of health services, technology still plays a huge part. Keeping people's health records and keeping them safe and secure, again, there's that intersection with technology. So it's all related.
And I never felt like the skills and the specialty that I had acquired as being an IT and telco lawyer had gone to waste. In fact, I thought they just enhanced what I could bring to the organisation from a health perspective. Yes, it was daunting at times. I was just like, "There's so much to learn." And there's so much in the health industry that you can't control because you're so dependent on third parties.
And that's a really interesting difference from technology. As I said before, so long as I'm learning, I think that that is a really good thing. And you can marry all your skills. And never be scared of learning something new. And I think particularly, when you're a junior lawyer, you start off having to learn all these different things until you settle in the specialty that you most prefer.
But then from that specialty, learn as much as you can about different things. Because in the world outside of private practice, organisations are not just specialising in a particular thing. They might be delivering a specialised product or service to consumers, but there is a whole heap of different specialties that all join together to make that organisation work.
So you need to know a little bit about marketing, you need to know a little bit about how managing risk works. You need to know a little bit about the finance side of things. You need to learn a little bit about everything and you should just be open to that.
Never be scared of it. Ask questions, be curious because that's how you learn. And never assume people know more than what you do. They might in their particular area, but they might not in the area that you know. So it's a community of learning. I think that's the way you got to look at it.
That's really, really wonderful advice. And I think it's so important as well for those who are still in private practice juniors, to heed that advice particularly. And I recall in the days when we worked together, it was so important. One of the lessons I learnt from you to really understand the client's business from a commercial perspective. And I think the more you keep learning, the better you become.
So I think that's really wonderful advice.
And just from a perspective of being a female lawyer in this industry, I'm sure in your long career you may have faced challenges or perhaps barriers along the way to get to where you are today. Can you give us a couple of examples of any challenges that you may have dealt with?
I tried not to think as my gender as being a barrier. So I never felt like I was starting from behind the starting line because I was a woman. So maybe that was just the way I was brought up, maybe that was just my view on life. But I didn't see it as an impediment, and I wasn't going to allow it to be an impediment.
So it was just if I've got an opinion, I'm going to express it. The fact that I'm a woman shouldn't make a difference really. Where I felt that you noticed it more as a woman working in professions such as legal, but just generally, I think this is an issue that most women confront, is that time in your life when you have children. That is when you really notice we are different to men. Well, that's what it was for me, at least. Everyone has their own different experience.
But that whole thing of... And I was a partner at the time when I got pregnant. And I remember thinking I was nervous about announcing the fact that I was pregnant and thinking about how my male partners... And not only my male partners because female partners had some interesting reactions as well to being pregnant, having to take time off, "How long will you take off?"
It just felt like there was a lot of pressure. And there was a lot of pressure to decide what you were going to be doing in terms of who would be looking after your practice. Am I putting myself in a difficult position by then having to come back and rebuild my practice? There were all these additional things that you had to think about that I thought, "Gee, aren't men lucky they don't have to think about all of these things?"
Because even though men can take paternity leave for various reasons, it tends to be the mother that needs to stay home, particularly in the early stages. So, you do think about those kinds of things and for me, that highlighted that there is a difference. And that's when I saw that you could fall behind in terms of whether it's considered years of service, whether it's having to rebuild your practice when you get back.
Could you do a job share? Back then I don't think anyone was really experimenting with job shares and maybe that was the way to go. I don't think part-time necessarily works for a lot of women, because you do end up working on the days that you're not in the office, but you get paid less. So there were just lots of considerations then. And I think for me, that highlighted one of the challenges. It was like, "How am I going to manage all of this?"
And I think it's still a challenge that women face across every industry. Caregivers. And I know we're trying to be a bit more inclusive of who might be the primary caregiver. But I think we still need to acknowledge that in the majority of cases, it will be the woman. And I think that makes it something that we do need to address.
And it's good to see that there have been changes over the years. Since the 17 years that I've met you, Dora, I think a lot of things have changed. And I think it's really important that we talk about these things more. And I think about when I had my kids, it was almost like you had your kids, but you didn't really talk about it. Going to their school to see them get an award wasn't really spoken about.
It was something that if you had the opportunity and the time and the flexibility to do it, you could do it. And even if you could, you didn't speak about it. One of the, again, benefits of COVID I think is that it's brought the family back to the forefront and the fact that people have lives outside of work.
And being able to talk about these responsibilities that you have outside of the home, and seeing how you can integrate them into your working life, has been a really good thing. So over time, I've seen changes, but I wouldn't say the challenges are far from over.
And I completely agree with you, things have changed. I got three kids of my own and it's a huge juggle. Been very fortunate to work in a team that affords me the flexibility to be able to juggle work and my family life. But back in the day, for you it was much harder. But yet you still established a really incredible career. I'm curious. How did you find a way to do that?
Well, you've got to work in an environment that recognises and is supportive of the fact that there is a juggle. And I have to pay respect to Ashurst. Even back then when I had my kids, I thought I had one particular good role model in our team, if you remember, Belinda Findlay, Dora, who set a bit of a precedent in terms of she took 12 months off when she had her baby, which was pretty unheard of. Most female partners took far less time.
So you need a few trailblazers and you need a few people that it's like, "This is what I want to do," and to have the courage to do it. But you need an environment that is supportive. And I thought Ashurst was progressive back then, and it's good to see it's become even more, acknowledging that this is how the future is and responding to that really early on.
So I think that, made a huge difference to me in terms of the flexibility being there and not being seen as unusual for wanting to put my kids before my career at a particular point in time, which I think it's okay to do that. And it's okay to prioritise and be open about that and to have an environment that is supportive of that.
I think in terms of what I would say to women that are in similar positions, and particularly those that haven't started their families yet or about to start their families or have small children and they're coming to grips with all of this, it's to learn to live with the guilt. You're never going to get it totally right.
And I think we're sold a bit of a dream that you can have work-life balance and flexibility, and you can manage having a career and having kids. And it's a juggle, but you can do it. You're always going to feel guilty. Even if you think you've got it down pat one week, the next week or the next day might be a completely different story. Your kid might get sick, you might have to re-juggle things around again.
It's really hard and there's no easy solution to it. And again, I don't think it's a gender-specific thing because as men take on more caregiving roles, they're going to experience the same sort of challenges. I would say learn to live with the guilt because it's not going to go away. You're either going to feel guilty that you're not doing your job, you're not as focused enough on that because, I don't know, your kid's sick and you've got to give them attention.
Or you're going to feel guilty about your kids because you're spending too much time at work and not with them. That guilt is going to be there. It's a matter of shifting and calibrating that guilt from time to time, and just realizing this is modern life and I'm not going to be able to feel 100% happy with everything 100% of the time.
So true, so true. And I love how raw you are with that feedback because I can attest to that from my own personal experience. The guilt is there and it sticks with you no matter how hard you try to get rid of it. And I wanted to just circle back though, back to your career.
And this next question, I would've thought, personally having known you and worked with you, that the answer to it would be a no. But I'm curious to hear whether, if at any time, you ever suffered from imposter syndrome at any stage of your career?
Well, it's interesting that you think that the answer would've been no, because that shows I was doing a really good job of faking it. Because there were times when I felt like I suffered from imposter syndrome. And I think it's very common with women, we do it a lot. Sometimes I would be just like, "I can't believe I'm in this position and people are looking to me to tell them what to do."
When at the back of my mind I'm thinking, "Do I even know what it is I'm meant to be advising on or giving direction on?" And they're these things you've just got to stamp it out. I think what I've become really good at over the years, Dora, is that little bit of imposter syndrome that I had in my younger years, I've got to admit, as I got older, that just sort of went away.
But that little bit of imposter syndrome that I had in my younger years, it was really holding me back. And it wasn't holding me back in terms of the quality of the work that I was producing or anything like that. It was holding me back in terms of the way I felt about myself and it wasn't giving me enough recognition for the experience and expertise and knowledge that I actually had. It was robbing me of my confidence.
And how to stamp that out, I'm sure there are courses on it. There's courses on everything these days. But for me, it was just like, "I don't have time for this, I need to push those feelings aside. And I wouldn't be here if people didn't see me, what I'm not seeing in myself." So you've got to do a little bit of that introspection and being a bit more self-aware and just stamping that kind of feeling out.
And that is what I did. And again, it was really liberating when I did because it was just like, "Oh, yeah, I do know what I'm talking about. Oh, yeah, this is why people are coming to me for advice, it's because I know what I'm talking about." But you have to go through that period of stamping it out. And it'll sometimes resurface at different stages of your career, and particularly when you're learning something new.
Or you may have been promoted into a new position and you start to doubt yourself because of the number of activities or tasks or responsibilities that you have in that job. There's about 10% that you feel like you probably don't know what you're doing in that bit. And you let that 10% take over and feel like you're faking the other 90%. You're not. You know 90% of it, and you're working on developing your knowledge and experience in that other 10%. So you're not an imposter; you're just someone who is learning.
That's great advice. And I think that's very true, I think it's more common amongst female lawyers. I think we have this tendency of wanting to know everything and go into something on that basis. And scared if we don't know anything, we'll be found out. And not just having a go or even faking that confidence, if that's the right way to say it.
But to just have that ability to see you don't have to know the answer straight away, but you could at least go in a room, show confidence and then go back and learn, like you said, and get back to your client about it.
And in that regard, through your career, do you think there are ways that perhaps younger female lawyers, in particular, could feel more supported to have that ability to gain more confidence in what they do, to represent themselves in a meeting, for example?
Whether that be in-house or even their internal clients in private practice. What more do you think we could do to support junior lawyers like that to enable them to get over, eventually, these feelings of imposter syndrome or lack of confidence?
I think mentoring is a really important tool to help people with their confidence. And if you are a young female lawyer or just a female lawyer, generally, it doesn't have to be a female mentor, it can be a male mentor. And you don't just have to have one mentor. You can have many mentors for different aspects of what it is that you're trying to achieve.
So if you attend a meeting and you're in private practice, you attend a meeting, and there's the CEO of a particular company, happens to be a male. But you like the way he goes about doing something or the way he explains something or the way he inspires these people or whatever it may be that he's good at. Learn from that. Just pick out things from different people to help you along. And in terms of that doubt, "Am I doing it right? Am I doing a good job?" That's when you find yourself almost like a personal coach.
You don't have to go hire someone. It could be the person sitting next to you in the office, someone that you trust. And I've got to say this, someone who's going to be honest with you. Cheerleaders are great for getting your confidence up when you might be feeling in doubt, but that constructive feedback is so important.
So you need someone that's going to give it to you, but you need to be open to receiving it as well, even if sometimes it might hurt. It's that kind of stuff that you learn from. So I would say choose a mentor and it might be multiple mentors, but you have them for different reasons.
Great advice, again. Your pearls of wisdom, Maria. And looking back at your career, what would you say has been your biggest highlight or success?
That's a hard question to answer because to be honest, I'm one of those people, and maybe it's a negative, I just don't celebrate the good things. I'm just ready to move on to the next thing. So when I look back and I think, "What have been my greatest successes?" I have to really stop and think about it.
And I think it depends. Your success will be defined at the point in time that you are at your career. So whether it's making senior associate, or whether it's making partner, or if you're in-house becoming the general counsel. There's your typical milestone moments where you're like, "Wow, that was successful."
For me, now I'm 50, Dora, and I've been around a while. My successes now are the small things. I went to work today, I made a contribution, I was able to influence something in a way that I think is really going to add value. And that is success to me.
So for me now, it's really breaking it down into those little things, and the things I see myself achieving each day that I think can really benefit the organisation and ultimately the customers that we serve, as opposed to those big milestone moments.
Yeah, different successes change as you change and adapt your career throughout time.
Well, look, I'm not particularly financially literate or even mathematically that capable. And every day if I learn something new from my finance colleagues or whatever, I think to myself, "Wow, what an achievement. I did well today. I learnt something about accounting principles or something." So it's just I think, taking the pleasure and celebrating those little successes.
And if it's a bit of advice that I could give to all the young lawyers out there, whether you're male or female, don't focus too much on the big ones, the being promoted or working on a big deal. It's those little things that you are getting out of your career every day. And if you celebrate those little wins, you enjoy your job more too, and you're actually enjoying the moment as opposed to always striving for this thing that may not even happen.
And I think people need to realize that it's a numbers game as well. Not everyone can become a partner, not everyone can become a general counsel. So if you're setting yourself up that that's your only goal and that's how you measure your success, you could be really disappointed. So even though that might be your overarching goal, your goal should be every day: what am I learning and what am I doing to improve?
And as you get more knowledge, you should think, "That's a success. Today I succeeded because I did X, Y, Z." Otherwise, you're just putting so much pressure on yourself for something that is in the future and you are not living in the moment. And I think looking back at my career, I think to myself that living in the moment bit is really important. Because you learn so much more from the moment than what you do from the aspirational thing that could be years away.
Amazing. And just coming off of that point, so if you were to look back all those years to your younger self, in addition to the point you just made, would there be any other tips that you would give yourself at that time?
It's hard to say because I think you learn from everything, even the things that you didn't do well enough and they're there to make who you are. So I don't look back and think, "Should I have done something differently?" I sometimes think, "Should I have done something more or less than what I did?" And I think that thing about doubting myself early on, that imposter syndrome thing, would've been better to square that away sooner than what I did.
And like I said, I may have been very good at faking it, but I think a lot of us are faking it, particularly early on in our careers. So probably doubting myself less. The other thing I would say, and I certainly don't have a problem with it, as you know, Dora, knowing me well, is speaking up. There was a bit of advice that I got when I first made partner and it was from one of the pre-existing partners who'd been a partner for a while and said, "When you're a junior partner, don't speak up too much at partner's meetings."
And there was this whole thing about you could be seen as this new upstart who's telling people that have been doing this for years how we should be going about things. "Know your place, don't speak up more." I look back now and I think that was terrible advice. That was terrible advice because I think the greatest contribution you can make is to contribute your opinion.
And even if that opinion is... Or you're putting forward a solution to something or something, a potential initiative, even if it ends up being a bad idea, it doesn't matter. It shows that you're thinking. And I think what we should really be aiming for in organisations these days are people that think.
And people that think and express what they're thinking is really important. I think that makes a better organisation. And I think just from a diversity perspective, you shouldn't always be too deferential to people that have been around for years. I like hearing from new people, I like hearing from young people. I like hearing how they think.
There could be something that I'm missing that they could contribute. And I would say, "Speak up, guys." So long as you do it in a respectful way, don't feel like your opinion does not matter or that what you're suggesting is a stupid idea or whatever. It doesn't matter. The fact that you are thinking is valued. And as now I'm a more senior member of the profession, I can tell you that is the thing that I value most.
In terms of legal skills, I take it that people will have those. Yes, you're always in the process of honing them, but you will have the basics. But having an opinion and thinking and being curious and being able to contribute from an intellectual perspective and improving the organisation or the service that you're offering, or if you're selling products, whatever it may be, that is what I really want to hear. You hire people, you don't just hire the Halsbury's Laws of Australia.
That's refreshing to hear, honestly. You don't often hear that from senior leadership really. Sometimes I think juniors feel like cog in the wheels and they feel the pecking order, so to speak, particularly in private practice at times, even in an in-house role.
And so having that confidence to be able to speak up and just taking the bull by the horns and doing it, is really refreshing to hear and I think can help alleviate a little of people's imposter syndrome or whatever else that might be inhibiting or holding them back.
So thank you for sharing those insights. And thank you for talking with me after all this time. It's been so wonderful to see you again, to speak with you. And I learnt a lot from you today, again. As you taught me all those years ago, once again, you've taught me more. And that's what I love about you. You speak your mind and you impart such wise words.
And I'm so glad that our audience can hear about your career journey and your incredible advice. And hopefully, it will help many of them steer them in a different direction or continue on to better themselves as lawyers in wherever they may be practicing. So thank you so much for your time today, Maria.
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