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The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is the world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, nonprofits and other private-sector organizations around the globe.

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Mary Adam

Member in the Spotlight allows us to get up-close and personal with some of our ACC Australia members.This week we are shining the spotlight on Mary Adam, General Counsel at the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia and a committee member of ACC Australia.

Tell us about your current role.

I am General Counsel at the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia. I have been here for nine years and in that time both my role and the Department have changed a lot. The Department regulates local government and the liquor and gambling sectors in Western Australia. On top of that it is responsible for supporting culture and the arts, and sports and recreation.  

This means there is a huge variety in our legal work. We can be advising on large cultural or sports infrastructure projects in the morning and a misconduct issue in local government in the afternoon. 

I have a long history in local government, public health and policy and strategy development, both before and after I was admitted as a lawyer in the Northern Territory. I have been called upon to lead and provide input into significant government strategies and responses, in fact it is one of the things I really love about my job – that I am more than a lawyer!

My work in developing public health emergency legislation led to me sitting on the WA Pandemic Emergency Response Committee during the last (swine flu) pandemic. It was fascinating to watch all the systems at work and seeing what goes into responding to a major public health threat and has given me a reasonable insight into what is currently happening! 

What do you believe is the most important skill an in-house lawyer needs?  

The ability to communicate to your clients that you understand how to assist them deliver on the organisation’s requirements. Sometimes I hear in-house counsel referred to as the hand-brake of the business but by keeping your mind focussed on the outcome, you can find a solution that gets the organisation where it needs to be.

What led you to pursue an in-house legal role?

I fell into in-house.  I started my legal career in my mid-thirties.  

Prior to that I had somewhat peripatetic career in local government and public health, starting with an environmental health job, then as an environmental health manager. It was while I was working with the Northern Territory Heath Department in women's health, adult guardianship, and aged and disability that I started studying law part time.

Since I began working in-house – first in Canberra and then back home to Perth, I have spent a substantial amount of time working in public health and local government legal areas. I have remained in-house because of the variety of interesting people I meet and work that I do.

What advice would you offer to in-house counsel in building relationships with their organisations

I recommend lawyering by walking around, a term I have derived from the managing by walking around style of business management.  Not only do you build relationships, you also get to know the organisation, the people and the issues.  In doing this, you will hear things you otherwise might not and people will ask questions they might not have.  This gives you the unique ability to work across the organisation. I still spend plenty of time sitting at my desk working on legal advices, but it is a lot more fulfilling when I know the people I am assisting and their back story. 

Not everyone is a networking extrovert and not all organisations are readily open to this approach so I also suggest catching up with people for coffee, having meetings to discuss future needs and not missing a morning tea, or workplace gathering.

What is the one thing a law degree doesn’t teach you about being an in-house lawyer?

The importance of soft skills. To quote from Wikipedia  “common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude”. This is essential in any in-house role. 

What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed across the legal sector since you joined the profession?

Wow, so many changes! Just like every aspect of 20th century life, the legal sector has changed so much. It has been the subject of disruption, requiring lawyers to be flexible, responsive, and sometimes needing to reinvent ourselves also.

Finish this sentence… If I wasn’t a lawyer I’d be…

A stand-up comedian – probably a very broke and niche one. 

I like being a part of the ACC Australia community because …

the members of ACC Australia are a community. That cannot be said of every peak professional body.  When we come together there is such good will and generosity. I joined ACC Australia for the CPD sessions in Canberra, at the end of last century – and I stay for the people that make up our community.