Niti Nadarajah

For Niti Nadarajah, her career has evolved and life has thrown challenges at her, but throughout her journey she has developed a broader outlook on what she can contribute in her professional life. She has become an advocate for a range of issues at work, from mental health to flexibility, from recognising others and providing feedback to gender equality. Niti is passionate about inclusive and authentic leadership, leadership that demonstrates empathy and courage, kindness and vulnerability.

Tell me a little about your background and your journey to the role you have now.

I started my legal practice as many lawyers do in BigLaw, firstly at Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst) in Melbourne and then a few years later at Allen & Overy in London and Sydney, practising in the areas of Mergers & Acquisitions, Equity Capital Markets and General Corporate. I also did a couple of secondments – one at ANZ in Melbourne and another at Citigroup in London. The Citigroup secondment was both challenging and fascinating because I started with them a week before Lehman Brothers collapsed and closed across the road.

Having done a few secondments, I knew that I wanted to move in-house. I was tired of the long hours, the mental and physically exhaustion and the intense focus on billable hour targets and resulting lack of balance in my private life. As a woman thinking of starting her own family in the short term, I knew it was time to move and in 2012, I interviewed for in-house positions in Melbourne. Those interviews led me to eventually join Philip Morris in Melbourne.

What's your view of technology in the practice of law? Do you use any tech tools to do your work?

Technology can be a great enabler in assisting with the practice of law. The problem is often finding the right tool to meet your specific needs as each in-house department differs from the next. My team doesn’t, for example need tools that help in litigious matters but we have in the past explored and use tools for automation of contracts and are exploring the option of a tool to assist with triaging our work.

You advocate for "authentic and inclusive leadership." What do you mean by this and how do you advocate for it?

Over the years, I have had experiences with both great bosses and “not-so-great” bosses that have shaped my views on leadership. One of those views is the need for transparency and humanity in the way you manage other people. I have always valued those leaders who I believe are being real and vulnerable in their words as well as through their actions. Authenticity is something that is often trained out of us as private practice lawyers, but I believe in the uncertain and ever-changing world we live in today, it is a trait that is more important than ever.

Inclusion is something that has always been on my radar as someone who is both a woman and a POC. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to learn to be observant as leaders. To read people and understand what they are not verbalising. To listen with an open mind and not jump ahead to solution-mode. By observing and listening, we can understand where we may need to do things differently to help others feel like they belong and that they have a voice.

For me, advocacy was until last year largely confined to my organisation. Over the last year, I have however been engaging more actively on LinkedIn and publicly sharing my views and my own humanity through the experience of the pandemic. Engaging in those conversations on LinkedIn has led me to explore how I can contribute more actively to social justice causes I believe in and take my voice to other platforms, such as speaking at events or on podcasts. I hope my voice can make a difference.

Cultural change is hard and perhaps especially so within the legal profession. So, how do you suggest that individuals like yourself seeking that change make it a reality?

It is hard. The culture of the legal profession, particularly that within private practice, is long-established and grounded in tradition. Breaking tradition is challenging because it involves questioning the way things have been done for so long and trying something new.

I believe that as in-house counsel, we have a powerful voice in shaping culture because we can control the identity of the individuals and the firms with whom we work. We can therefore advocate for greater diversity in lawyers servicing our matters – and not just gender diversity, but diversity based on other attributes like race. We can also voice our thoughts and help those coming through the ranks see things differently – we can help shape the voices and leaders of the future.

To a law student unsure of where to take their career, what would be your advice?

Do your research. Look into ALL of your options, including the less traditional options. Law schools often promote private practice as the best of all options when you’re starting in your career, but there is so much more you can do. Talk to friends and family. Get onto platforms like LinkedIn and follow other lawyers and organisations you are interested in – don’t be shy to ask a few questions to those that have done the hard yards before you.

And also know this – what you do at the start of your career is likely not going to be where you finish your career. If you find that what you have chosen is not working for you, it’s never too late to change your mind and do something else.