Q&A: Kriss Will – “When people ask me how I’m enjoying retirement, I say I’m not retired, I’m just not able to work.”
In the second of a two-part Q&A, Kriss Will, a respected long-time HR consultant to law firms and the founder of Kriss Will Consulting, explains why it is important for law firm leaders to be decent, and how she maintains a “glass-half-full” approach despite having received a life-changing health diagnosis.
You must have seen the best and worst of law firms and lawyers over the years.
“You come across a lot of decent people who are also good lawyers. I tell young lawyers to examine their practice group for someone who seems to have their act together and ask them how they do it, and then learn from them. Those people tend to be very generous with their time. There is a real sense of community and camaraderie within the legal profession – people do help out each other. There have been many cases of tragedies, or really bad things happening in a law firm, and other firms will step in and help. It is worth thinking about the fact that the legal profession is the only profession that talks to itself all the time. Doctors, for example, talk to patients, but there are usually at least two lawyers on every matter and there’s a lot of connectivity through their work and it builds that sense of community.
“The other good thing to note is that Australian law firms are pretty strong in the area of management. About 25 years ago I went on a tour of law firms in the United States, to Los Angeles and New York. The Law Council was interested at the time in running a learning program whereby Australian lawyers toured firms in the US. And I came back suggesting that we look at the firms doing well in Australia. That’s when we started doing the Leading Edge practice tour in the Law Council. What I got out of going to the US was that Australian law firms are actually pretty good!”
And what’s the worst you’ve seen?
“Well, I’ve had a couple of people threaten to kill me over the years, and that’s not pretty. So I did spend some time in a Melbourne hotel early on in my career with the police advising me to stay there. After those experiences, you do become a bit unflappable. In terms of the worst thing with the day-to-day operation of law firms, it’s when you see people make the same mistakes again and again. In the past there was a tendency to protect senior executives’ bad behaviour, so instead of being called out they would go on to repeat that behaviour. That’s a management and cultural fault – you couldn’t call out the senior people for poor behaviour.”
You’ve had threats against your life. What other strange things can happen to a HR professional?
“Before employees had the freedom of mobile devices such as smartphones, I used to have to watch quite a lot of porn as part of my job. Let me explain! If someone had been accused of watching porn on computers in the office, I’d have to check out the case to see if the allegations were correct, including assessing if the images were actually porn. On a couple of occasions, it wasn’t porn – the employees might have been looking at swimwear models, for example, which wasn’t a great use of work time but it wasn’t porn. It became clear to me, checking through accounts with the IT team, that some people were watching porn very regularly. And I’d say, ‘What are you doing about it?’ and the response would be along the lines of, ‘Oh well, he’s a senior executive, so we can’t do anything’. It raises important questions about accountability. As a sidenote, every person who I spoke to about watching porn at work had the same answer as to why they had done it – that is, they couldn’t do it at home. With mobile devices, this issue has now changed and it’s one area of work that I’m happy has disappeared.”
Have you benefited from mentors during your career?
“Certainly, Allan Moore stand out. He’s the bloke who said to me when he thought I was getting a bit bored that I should go on some Law Institute committees and ‘get active’. The firm actually paid me for it. Allan said if you can do your job in four days, go for it and the other day you can do things to support the profession. He was great and his son, Danny, was the same. They gave me a lot of support.
“My parents were fantastic role models, too. I grew up in Foster, a small country town in Victoria, where everyone just got involved in everything because that’s how things got done. I loved growing up in a country town and that sense of community is something you carry with you. And the legal profession has parallels in that sense. I’ve been lucky in my career to have had a whole range of people who’ve been very nice to me.”
As a respected woman who has worked for a long time in the legal sector, how do you think females are faring in terms of equality and progression?
“I have always found that you can have all these people in the HR team, but that the senior people in HR are male – and that situation reflects a lot of professions. On a positive note, women lawyers have more clout these days. They are savvy and they are building on a lot of the work that women did decades ago. So in the lawyer ranks there’s still progress to be made, but it’s well on its way. In the management ranks, I’m not so sure. I think it mirrors the partnership. Until you get more women into decision-making positions or the ownership model, I’m not sure that there’s going to be that respect for women. Practice managers are often female, but senior managers are often male. There’s no doubt that taking time out for career breaks has an impact on women, but it’s interesting that I had dinner recently with some very senior female HR mates, and it dawned on me that none of us has kids of our own and I believe that has made it easier for us to get to the top. I’ve always been of the opinion that raising children is a parenting issue, not a women’s or a mothers’ issue. The bottom line is that more fathers should contribute to raising children – if a few more blokes went part-time and supported women in their work that would be good.”
On the subject of support, your partner Noel Blake has been a tremendous aide for you during your career and personally, and particularly in more recent times following your diagnosis with a serious neurological illness. Does he deserve a rap?
“He is the best PA I have ever had! I could always trust him. And in the latter years of my career he was the only one who really knew how unwell I was. He did a great job of keeping all the balls up in the air. He was very good at telling me to go home and do nothing and regroup. He’s obviously a good bloke and he’s good at caring for me.”
Your condition is a degenerative neurological illness that has had an impact on your stomach and oesophageal muscle peristalsis, which means you now have to be fed through a tube into your upper intestine. You continue to take a positive view about life and want to get the message across to people about being resilient. How are you coping?
“I’d like to think that most people, when they get tested, show resilience. I keep getting feedback from my specialist that I seem to be very organised about dealing with my treatments and being very glass-half-full about all of this. But you really don’t have any choice with such illnesses. You adapt, you fight, you accept, you adapt and you fight the next thing. My condition, because it is a neurological illness, means my health will continue to decline and you’ve just got to get on with whatever is going to happen.
“Now that I’m being fed through my stomach I have a lot more control over that aspect and, if things get really bad for me, I can just stop tube feeding in line with this whole euthanasia debate. I know that sounds a bit bleak, but I have a bit more control over my future – and I’ve got a great team of doctors at The Alfred and my GP is a gem. There are funny moments, too. One of my other my symptoms is cervical dystonia, which can cause your head to twist or turn to one side and make your head ‘wobble’. The treatment for this is botox injections into the back of my head, so I can now say to people that I can’t catch up or do something because I’m off for botox. The reactions I get are fantastic, so you’ve got to have your fun with it.”
Has announcing your retirement been confronting?
“I’m not going to pretend I like it. When people ask me how I’m enjoying retirement, I say I’m not retired, I’m just not able to work. When you’re used to making a contribution every day it’s a hard adjustment, but we look after grandchildren and nieces and nephews and stay busy. I’d absolutely prefer to be working. I’m 51 years old, but this is what it is, so you do other stuff. On a practical note and as advice for others, I have income protection insurance, so while financially it’s not as good as working, we’re not under the sort of pressure we’d be under if we didn’t have that insurance. I took it out when I became a self-employed consultant back in 1996 because I had seen what a difference it can make to people’s lives.”
Do you have any other messages for your peers?
“For people who are in positions of influence, I’d advise them to look out for others they can help. I’ve never said ‘no’ to people who’ve asked for assistance when they were in difficult situations and it’s a chance to make a contribution through pro bono work. The legal profession has a richness of skills and people will feel better about themselves if they share that. Mentoring people has become very formalised, but just catching up with people for a coffee is very important. Be kind to people. Just because you are a senior lawyer or manager, it doesn’t mean you can’t be kind to all the people who are in your orbit.”