23/01/2007 - 22:00

Saraceni takes centre stage

23/01/2007 - 22:00

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Employment lawyer Maria Saraceni says she would have made her parents proud if she had become a hairdresser, married young and produced plenty of grandchildren.

Saraceni takes centre stage

Employment lawyer Maria Saraceni says she would have made her parents proud if she had become a hairdresser, married young and produced plenty of grandchildren.

After all, she is the daughter of Italian immigrants.

Ms Saraceni remembers her father being disappointed when she decided, at age 26, to abandon her high school teaching job in favour of becoming a lawyer.

“If you wanted to be married and have babies, teaching was a good job; but for me it was a job not a career,” she said.

Ms Saraceni said the teaching profession lacked a genuine career ladder and left her bored and frustrated.

So she enrolled in an MBA and law degree and let the local jobs market guide her to make the final decision on what qualification she would study.

“I wrote to law firms and other businesses and the first one that offered me a job was Jackson McDonald,” Ms Saraceni said.

She worked full-time as a para-legal with Jackson McDonald while completing her law degree.

Ms Saraceni is viewed by many in the profession as one of the best employment lawyers in the country, having spent 20 years with Jackson McDonald climbing the ladder to become a partner and heading up its workplace relations team.

Late last year, Ms Saraceni opted to leave state-based Jackson McDonald in favour of national law firm Deacons, where she is partner and head of the firm’s WA workplace relations team.

The move allows her to work with firms from across Australia.

Ms Saraceni is also the president of the Law Society of Western Australia, a professional body representing the state’s barristers and solicitors.

Ms Saraceni said she found it hard in the early years, particularly working alongside the other women in the office, most of whom were secretaries.

“If one of the [male] partners asked them to pick up the dry-cleaning they would go and do it,” she said. “ But if I asked to have something done, like my typing, I would get a hard time because I guess, as a woman, that was something they thought I should be doing myself.”

Ms Saraceni believes the climb to the top would have been a lot harder, if not impossible, if she had married early in her career and had children.

The hours in law are gruelling and the legal profession was only just starting to adopt a more flexible approach to employment, she said.

And that meant retaining female staff was a major challenge for the legal profession.

“If you look at the numbers, 65 per cent of law students are female and so to attract the brightest of them you have to have things that appeal to them,” she said.

“There’s a shortage in the legal market for juniors with three to four years’ experience. There are huge numbers of people that come into law and then all of a sudden it dries up.”

Ms Saraceni said women needed to become better at networking, which included joining societies like the Law Society and other associations that allowed them to mingle with their peers.

“A lot of them sit back, whereas most of the men put themselves forward,” said Ms Saraceni, who admittedly enjoys using the rarity of her position as a top female lawyer.

“You command more attention.

“I often go into a boardroom filled with men, who are a little surprised when they see me. I’ll walk in and say, ‘gentlemen, do you want the short version or the long version? The short version is ‘you’re stuffed’. I usually win them over and we sit down and discuss what they need to do.”

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