Valeska Bloch, Partner at Allens imagined herself as a criminal lawyer in her early years studying law at UNSW. But while stints at Redfern Legal Centre and the DPP were "fascinating", she found herself drawn to media, communications and IT law subjects in her final years of study.
Here, she tells us why she was "hooked" on commercial law after a summer clerkship, how she's navigated the path to partnership (while on parental leave) and her future career expectations.
Crowd & Co: Can you tell us why you decided to continue on the career path you discovered as a summer clerk?
Valeska Bloch: My summer clerkship and time spent as a paralegal at Allens gave me a taste of commercial law at a time when the media and technology industries and the laws that govern them were undergoing major transformation. I was hooked on the messiness of it all, the way that the law is always playing catch up to technological developments, and the fact that this has a very real impact on our lives.
C&Co: Congratulations on being appointed a partner at Allens in July this year. I've read that you were promoted while on parental leave and plan to return to work part-time next year. How did you deal with these issues around leave and flexibility while applying for partnership? Was it something discussed directly?
VB: Promotion to partnership is a relatively long process at a place like Allens and it was already in train when I fell pregnant. I had a frank conversation early on in my pregnancy with the partners that I work with. They made it clear they take a long-term view of these things and that my desire to take parental leave and to return to work part-time would have no bearing on the timing of my promotion.
C&Co: Do you have any tips on approaching promotion when parental leave is on the cards?
VB: It's so difficult to give advice on this because every situation is different. In my case, speaking openly about my situation worked well because I had the full support of the partners in my team. The fact that they told me early on that they were taking a long-term view meant that I had the comfort and confidence to just focus on ensuring that I had a robust business case. But I'd be naïve to think that everyone is in a similar boat.
So, my advice would be to go into any promotion process with clarity about your value to the business, your priorities (including what you are and aren't willing to sacrifice) and about how you are going to articulate them.
C&Co: Do you expect any challenges in returning on a part-time basis?
VB: Of course! Making time to really be there for family and friends and other life experiences while also running a busy practice is always a challenge. And my new tiny side-kick introduces a whole new layer of logistical complexity. But I'm fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband, and our son also has four doting grandparents. So we have a lot of help. What many people also don't realise is that providing quality legal services is a team sport too—I'm lucky to work with a group of exceptionally bright, driven and passionate lawyers.
I'll need to work flexibly but that's not new. I've been working that way (albeit full time) for years. At the end of the day, I'm a technology lawyer and we help our clients develop and implement technology solutions so that people can do things more efficiently and effectively. There's no reason why, as lawyers, we shouldn't be able to do the same for ourselves. Allens has done a lot to support flexibility in recent years and has invested heavily in the technology required to enable that.
It'll be a steep learning curve but I'm determined to make this work in a way that is sustainable for my family, my team, my clients and me.
C&Co: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
VB: Growing and retaining our talent pipeline is a constant but rewarding challenge. Business opportunities are meaningless if we don't have top notch lawyers to do the work. The candidates coming out of law school these days are exceptional and there are now so many great career options for them to pursue—private practice is no longer the obvious choice.
But having to think hard about how we can attract and retain good people is a good thing. It means ensuring that we're recruiting diverse employees so that we don't miss out on significant pools of talent, it means creating an inclusive workplace that encourages a variety of thought, and it means taking the time to help junior lawyers learn and grow, including by giving them opportunities to work closely with clients who are building and running fascinating businesses.
C&Co: What career achievement are you most proud of? Why?
VB: The establishment of our Allens Accelerate high growth companies practice. I'm so proud to have helped incubate a new practice and client relationships inside one of Australia's oldest law firms that has one of the longest standing client relationships in the world. And I'm proud of the way that our team—comprising legal, marketing, technology and business experts—worked together to provide a new product to a new market.
C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?
VB: Finding an area early on that fascinated me and then being given the encouragement and support to pursue it: having that interest and focus has helped me to stay motivated and engaged.
Also, reading (and listening) broadly. I've always loved stories and as I've specialised over the years I've found that reading widely (and in recent years, listening to a variety of podcasts) has helped me keep the broader context in mind. Plus, there's so much to learn from great storytellers. Communicating with clients is such a critical part of what we do and there's a real craft to being able to tell stories and communicate messages well.
Finally, I’ve had wonderful mentors and role models both at and outside of work. They have given me encouragement, perspective, life hacks and above all have helped me take stock and prioritise what is important.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers?
VB: Technology, and in particular artificial intelligence, will eliminate many of the routine parts of our roles and change the way that we work. The challenge is not to try to claw those back. It's to do what technology can't (yet)—that is, to understand the people behind the problems that we're trying to solve and inject creativity and judgement and humanity into the work that we continue to do.
If you'd like to get more insight into Valeska's approach to career and growth, here's a list of her current favourite podcasts:
- Longform: discussions with non-fiction writers, editors and podcast hosts about how they got started and the craft of storytelling.
- Homecoming: a fictional series about a caseworker in an experimental facility, her manipulative boss and one of her clients, a soldier returning to civilian life.
- StartUp: a series about what it's like to start a business. The series kicked off by following the establishment of Gimlet Media, the podcast production company that makes StartUp.
- Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty (an American music industry executive).
- S-Town: a podcast about a horologist called John B. McLemore who has spent his entire life in a tiny town in Alabama.
- a16z: discussions about tech and culture trends, produced by VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
- Acquired: a podcast about tech company acquisitions.