Samantha Betzien reflects on the value of saying yes even if it doesn’t seem like the right time

by Liz Benson

Samantha Betzien is a partner at top-tier law firm, Minter Ellison, where she has worked for more than 21 years. Her focus is on employment and industrial relations, and she’s a nationally-recognised expert in work health and safety. Up until September 2019, Samantha was also a non-executive director at Airservices Australia, a role she held for more than seven years.

Samantha has three children aged 11, nine, and six.

We interviewed Samantha to find out more about how she manages a high-stress career as a law firm partner and company director.

How much, if any, maternity leave did you take with each of your three children?

I was going through the partnership process when my first child was born seven weeks premature. I was made partner while on early maternity leave with her. I spent five months with her, then went back to work while my husband then took six months’ parental leave.

I took six months off with my second child and, by then, my husband was no longer working full time. He had requested a part-time return to work after our daughter was born but his company denied that request. Although the company had women working part-time at that time, they had no men doing the same, so they couldn’t imagine a way to make it work. When they said no, my husband quit that job to stay home with the kids.

My third child was born when I was in the middle of a huge matter that was going to trial, so I only took three months’ maternity leave. I regret that because it was so difficult. Trying to breastfeed while back at work full time and preparing for a trial was incredibly stressful. It was entirely my decision and, looking back, I wish I’d made a different one.

Do you think women and men are treated differently when it comes to combining work and parenting?

Our experience proves that was true, at least in the past. My husband has a PhD in organic chemistry and was a senior manager in a pharmaceutical company when his request to work part-time was rejected. In a practical sense, men are often treated quite differently when asking for flexible work arrangements.

We ask when women will achieve equality in the workforce. The answer is that we never will until it’s acceptable for men to take on caregiving roles in the workplace. And this includes even the subtle discriminatory language such as when men are referred to as babysitting their own children, or being Mr Mum. People don’t necessarily mean those things in a negative way but it demonstrates that the stereotypes still exist.

The truth is that having a husband who was prepared to take on the caregiver role was the only way I was able to become a partner of a law firm and also take on a board director role that involves travel.

How did that board opportunity eventuate?

It was a matter of taking an opportunity that presented itself. My area of practice is employment and work health and safety. At the time, the minister was looking to fill a role on the Airservices Australia board with a lawyer who had my specific skills and experience to deal with fairly important key issues in the organisation. My name came across someone’s desk in the minister’s office and they called and asked for my CV. Although I had no board experience, the rest of my experience was what they were looking for.

It wasn’t a great time to take on an extra role. I was still getting used to being a partner and had two young kids at the time while looking to have a third. But I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like that so I said yes. Even though I had such a strong support base at home, it was still difficult, especially when I did get pregnant with my youngest son.

However, it was a really great experience and I’m so incredibly grateful that I did say yes because I felt like I really contributed to that board. And I used a different skillset to the one I use every day. This added insight and growth to my partner role both in a people management sense and also understanding where my clients were coming from even better than before.

Being on a board gave me insight that I didn’t already have. And listening to that amazing group of people talk is an incredible opportunity. It helped me to deepen my knowledge about how things work in Canberra and to understand different leadership styles.

How do you decide what opportunities to say yes to?

I work with an executive coach to determine how to achieve my goals. Having an executive coach is invaluable for me. It’s changed the way I look at things and go about things. My husband says he can tell when I’ve had an executive coaching session because I’m excited and energised, and I walk away feeling good about myself.

Many of us struggle with that feeling of not being good enough, regardless of our achievements. My executive coach is great at saying objectively what is true and questioning my thought processes to build me up so I’m doing my best work.

A coach is also someone to call me out if I don’t seem to be prioritising certain things. She holds me accountable which is great because, the more senior you are, the less likely it is that you have someone to do that for you.

Do you do structured goal planning?

I do, and I focus more on the short term because that works better for me. I like short-term goals that I can tick off each month. While I do have longer-term goals, I don’t worry about them as much. If you achieve your short-term goals, the long-term ones will take care of themselves.

How do you feel about quotas for women on boards or in leadership positions?

I’ve wavered on this issue over time. I used to be supportive because it was a concrete way to fix the problem and it’s not about inserting people who aren’t qualified. However, I’ve gone off the idea of quotas recently and I think targets are better.

Quotas can be polarising for men and women, while targets are a sharper instrument. If you’re looking to fill a role, it’s important to make sure there are equal numbers of CVs from men and women. From there, if the selection process is managed properly, the issue should be resolved without needing a quota.

How do you support your own team?

I’m passionate about supporting other women. In a law firm, it can be hard to walk away from a practice or a client list that you’ve built and then try to come back and slot in again. At my firm we are continually thinking about how to help people protect and maintain their practices while on parental leave.

One of the key ways to do that is to manage the practice while the person is on leave, then transition it back to them when they return. Traditionally, once the opportunities have been transitioned to another lawyer, they stayed with that person. But we’re finding that clients don’t mind transitioning back to their original lawyer when they return.

We’re still perfecting this approach but it seems to be the right way to go for partners and more junior lawyers alike. And it’s not just about supporting women lawyers but about making it easier for men to take parental leave, too.

Do you advocate staying in touch with work while on parental leave?

That’s a personal decision. Some find it easier to stay in touch and keep doing bits and pieces here and there, while others want to go on leave and not think about work. We have to respect both points of view while recognising that a complete break can make it trickier to get back into work when it’s time to return.

While my experiences weren’t perfect, I want to make it easier for people who follow, not harder. Let’s all learn from each other’s experiences.

Do you feel the typical guilt that lots of working mothers feel?

I spent the first nine years of parenting feeling pretty guilty but now I can see that the children aren’t traumatised or damaged, and that I have just as close a relationship with them as their father does. I feel more assured about my role as a parent. I also try to get to as much kid-related stuff as I can.

However, I do sometimes get jealous that my husband gets all that time with the kids and experiences that I miss out on. But I genuinely think I would not have been my best self if I’d been a stay-at-home-parent. I’ve made a conscious decision that I don’t have to do everything, that it’s important to be balanced, and of course my family comes first.

What does that balance look like daily or weekly?

I work flexibly and I’m in the office all day but I like to get home for dinner and log on later if necessary. Most people can work remotely with a laptop and phone, and most clients don’t know or care whether you’re in the office, as long as you’re dealing with their matters.

We’ve also seen an increase in productivity since letting people work more flexibly. They appreciate the flexibility and tend to work harder.

In terms of logistics like school runs and extracurricular activities, my husband manages those, although I do the late pick-ups from activities on my way home from work.

When our youngest was 18 months old, my husband broke both his collarbones in a bike accident, so he was incapacitated and we needed an au pair to look after the baby. My grandmother was dying at the time so I was trying to spend time with her. Managing these things takes flexibility.

We also have a cleaner because we’d rather spend time as a family than clean the house.

Do you find time for yourself? If so, what do you use it for?

I exercise for mental health. I break it up with F45 classes, running, and swimming laps. I also spend time with friends, go for coffee after exercise and enjoy being alive. I like walking the dog. I’ve learned to enjoy the little things in life and just be in the moment. Although I’m still busy, I feel like I’m enjoying the moment more these days.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be?

Overall, I’m happy but I would have been easier on myself during those early years. I would have taken extra time on parental leave.

Law has never been a nine-to-five proposition and you get out of it what you put in. You need to invest in your career to reap the benefits.

Each person has to find their own way. I think it would be great if everyone felt they had the flexibility to be able to balance work and family life. This isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an issue for everyone.