It was late afternoon when a partner in the top tier law firm Helen Strachan worked for stopped by her office. An urgent matter had come up that needed addressing by the next morning. The implication was clear: stay back and do the job. Eyeing the time, Strachan wondered how she would manage to collect her son from childcare, which shut at 6 pm, and still meet the firm’s expectations?

A flexible work life is just one of the reasons Strachan enjoys her in-house counsel role at Pernod Ricard Winemakers as the Legal and Corporate Affairs Director. The company’s award-winning Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, which Strachan heads up across the region, is another.

Pernod-Ricard’s in-house legal team won the Excellence in CSR award at the 25th ACC In-House Legal National Conference. In this article, Strachan shares how much the program means to her, and the challenge of balancing family and career without pretending to be someone that you’re not.

Empower Your People to Prioritise Life

Growing up in a small vineyard in South Australia, it seems natural to find Strachan working for one of the world’s largest premium wine producers, known for such brands as Jacob’s Creek. Strachan’s father was a grape grower, and her siblings are viticulturists. But she insists that she has no ‘green thumb’. “I was the hopeless one,” she jokes. “Instead, I’m using my legal skills to help the industry.”

When Strachan started her career, it was the call of social justice, rather than the grape, that attracted her to the law. She wanted to be a criminal lawyer. However, it was corporate law that turned out to be her calling. Working for Gilbert + Tobin and then Minter Ellison, Strachan enjoyed her work but describes the environment as “extremely challenging” for female practitioners with families.

“In-house, to me, really satisfies people because it’s interesting work where you contribute to producing fabulous brands but it’s also an environment where you can actually have a degree of balance, which is important,” she says.

“In-house, I can make the decisions. I genuinely know when something is urgent. I have more control, and I empower my team to determine what can be prioritised later,” Strachan says. If a team member needs to take their child to an appointment, she doesn’t want to know about it. “I tell them: Just make it happen. I don’t want people always prioritising work over home.”

Returning to Her Social Justice Roots

When Strachan comes home from a Pernod Ricard Winemakers fundraiser for a local homeless shelter, she feels a deep sense of satisfaction. The company’s CSR program is an opportunity for her to contribute to the community and to return to her social justice roots.

Pernod Ricard Winemakers is dedicated to its Sustainability + Responsibility program, which goes above and beyond supporting the UN’s sustainable development goals. Their program features four pillars, including:

  1. Nurturing Terroir;
  2. Valuing People;
  3. Circular Making; and
  4. Responsible Hosting.

The in-house legal team coordinates the program and its 2030 roadmap, entitled ‘Good Times from a Good Place’. The program sees Strachan involved in a range of activities, from responsible labelling and marketing to sitting on the boards of industry bodies dedicated to responsible alcohol consumption. She is particularly proud of the contribution Pernod Ricard is making in this space.

Strachan also oversees the company’s annual staff volunteering event, Responsib’ALL Day. Due to COVID-19, this is the first time that the event hasn’t been held. But in recent years, the company has come together to undertake conservation work on Torrens Island in South Australia, replanting trees in the Barossa Valley after bushfires swept through, and clearing waste to create community gardens.

Aside from making a difference, Strachan enjoys the opportunity to work with people from the business that she would not normally encounter. “I’m digging holes and clearing land with people I don’t normally meet, building connections I wouldn’t otherwise achieve,” she said. The program has also increased Strachan’s profile in the business, which not only helps her to drive the program but also enables more understanding of other parts of the business.

The Challenges Facing In-House Counsel Today

Strachan says that ensuring the business is not exposed to unnecessary legal risk is what keeps her awake at night. “I do feel the weight of responsibility to ensure that we are complying with the law every step of the way,” she says. “You’re the upholder of the law within the company, and it’s not just the law, it’s the legal responsibility as well.”

Preventing privacy and data breaches is another concern. Strachan says most in-house counsel “live in fear” of the privacy issue, that a data breach might occur.

A further challenge is proving your value and worth to the business so that it invests appropriately in the team.

“There’s always the challenge of never quite having enough resources to achieve all the things you would like to do from a legal and compliance perspective.

“I’d love to have another lawyer or two… but realistically I’m not going to get additional resources, so it’s me managing the team in such a way that, yes, there may be some holes, but they’re not ones that are a big risk to the business,” Strachan explains.

3 Key Lessons Learned

  1. Be a collaborator. “You have to be able to sit down with others and work through possible solutions. You can’t be someone who comes up with a perfect legal response that just won’t work for the business.”
  2. Be prepared to have difficult conversations. “In the early days, I would put off difficult conversations with staff members. It’s better to be open about your concerns and address the issues so you can resolve them and ensure everyone is engaged and happy; this will help you to be successful, too.”
  3. Be yourself. “It took me a very long time to realise I didn’t have to pretend to be someone that I wasn’t,” Strachan admits. “There’s a lot of time spent in law firms pretending that you don’t have a family or a life outside, but I’ve learnt that I can be myself.”

Strachan says that her career is important to her, and she values the contribution that she makes to the business, the boards that she sits on, and the CSR program. “But I would only do a job like this as long as I can get home most of the time to my children. So yes, my career is very important, but it’s not everything.”

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