The Crafty Show - Crafty Counsel's in-house legal podcast

Kate Sherburn, Legal Beagle at Who Gives a Crap, shares her career journey, how she finds meaning in her work and balancing being a lawyer and a parent

January 31, 2022 Crafty Counsel Season 1 Episode 7
The Crafty Show - Crafty Counsel's in-house legal podcast
Kate Sherburn, Legal Beagle at Who Gives a Crap, shares her career journey, how she finds meaning in her work and balancing being a lawyer and a parent
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of The Crafty Show  Ben White (Crafty Counsel’s Founder) speaks with Kate Sherburn, the Head of Legal at Who Gives a Crap based in Melbourne, Australia. 

 Kate was the first in-house lawyer at Who Gives a Crap and was awarded ‘New In-house Lawyer of the Year’ by the Association of Corporate Counsel in Australia in 2020. 

Ben and Kate talk about balancing work and kids, what it’s like being the first in-house lawyer in a company, and why Kate cares about working for a mission-based organisation 

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Kate Sherburn:
One thing I wish the legal industry would stop doing is remove barriers that working parents, particularly working mothers face. There does seem to be this idea that once you become a mother, you no longer have the same ability to do your job or that you aren't as dedicated or something like that. I've seen it time and time again, where those working flexibly are looked down upon for not pulling their weight. And that just isn't true.

Ben White:
Hi, everybody. And welcome to this episode of The Crafty Show. Today I speak with Kate Sherburn. Kate is the Legal Beagle or Head of Legal, if you prefer, at Who Gives a Crap based in Melbourne, Australia, they're a mission-based company selling good-looking, environmentally friendly toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues, and also now dream cloths and coffee as well. And they donate 50% of their profits to help build toilets for those in need.

Now, Kate was the first in-house lawyer at Who Gives a Crap and was awarded new in-house lawyer of the year by the Association of Corporate Council in Australia in 2020. So, we're going to be talking about balancing work and kids, what it's like being the first in-house lawyer in the company, and why Kate cares about working for a mission-based organisation.

Ben White:
Hello, Kate, and thank you very much for being on the podcast.

Kate Sherburn:
Thank you for having me.

Ben White:
Now, Kate, before we get into the meat of the interview, if you like, we've got a few warm-up questions, which we ask everyone. Number one, Kate, if you hadn't become a lawyer, what would you have become?


Kate Sherburn:
Well, I never thought I'd be a lawyer. I always thought I'd be a writer or a psychologist. And I ended up studying psychology alongside my law degree. I really thought I'd be an organisational psychologist, but I got some work experience as a paralegal in an in-house team and that definitely swayed me towards law.


Ben White:
Do you ever think of the alternative career path for Kate of being a psychologist?


Kate Sherburn:
I think it possibly would've ended up being quite similar because I was really interested in organisational change and then I ended up at the startup.


Ben White:
Fair enough, Kate. So the second warmup question. Do you use emojis at work? And if you do, what is your favourite work-based emoji?


Kate Sherburn:
Absolutely use them. It's one of the perks of working at a company like Who Gives a Crap. We embrace emojis. The poop emoji is one that I probably would use quite a lot. It's somewhat appropriate in our line of work, but it's also so versatile. You can just use it for so many things. And another favorite is the celebration emoji. I think that gets used quite a lot.


Ben White:
Nice. Glad to hear it. And I think one thing I've found from this podcast series is people, particularly when they move from private practice into in-house, seem to have really embraced various, perhaps less formal ways of working. And I think the use of emojis, indeed, the poop emoji is perhaps a reflection of that.

Kate, the third warm-up question that we usually ask everyone, I think might have a special resonance for you because we usually ask everyone, are you a work from home or a work from the office person? What's different here is that most of my interviews so far have been based in the UK where we've gone through some lockdowns, but you're based in Melbourne and you guys went through an absolutely enormous lockdown. So I ask you, are you a work from home or office person, but you've just been through a very particular and probably quite difficult experience. So are you? And perhaps, tell us a little bit about what's been going on over there?


Kate Sherburn:
So I do like a mix of both. Before I started working at Who Gives a Crap, I was always a work in the office person because there wasn't really another option. Once I started working here, I live quite far away from our office. And so it was nice to be able to work from home for that flexibility. I have young kids and so it meant I could do school drop offs and pick-ups, but I also like being around other people, I'm quite social. And so pre-pandemic, I tended to go into the office one day a week. It was probably my least productive day in terms of getting things ticked off my today list. But I really found that connection invaluable.


Kate Sherburn:
But like you said, being in Melbourne, I have pretty much been 100% work from home coming up for two years. I think probably in the past two years, I've maybe gone into the office five days. So definitely work from home. This has made it a little bit more difficult because I had two children doing homeschooling. So the first, we've had two really long periods of lockdown and a few shorter ones scattered in there.

And the first one in 2020 really wasn't too bad. My eldest daughter was in grade one. She's a really self-motivated learner. So it was her doing her own thing. And my son is sending us bankrupt with Lego. But last year we had another really long lockdown and my youngest was in prep back then which made it a lot more difficult, he couldn't read, he couldn't follow instructions. He basically couldn't do any of his school work unless one of us was sitting next to him. So that was really tough.

And my husband and I both work full time. We are very lucky. We both have very supportive and flexible workplaces, but for me in particular, I was so busy that it sort of did feel a little bit like we were hanging on by a thread for quite a lot of that time.

We sort of had to prioritise what was important because we just couldn't possibly get everything done and stay sane. So sometimes that meant that instead of helping the kids with their schoolwork, I went on outside and jumped on the trampoline with them for 15 minutes because that's what they needed at that time.

We are in a bit of a state of flux again at the moment because school's due to go back in three weeks. We're on our big, long summer break at the moment. But I think if we do end up homeschooling again, we'll cut that pressure right back from the start and just be kind to ourselves.


Ben White:
Kate, what an experience that you've gone through. And I think those of us who are parents in the UK could certainly empathise with that, but that's certainly longer and a deeper period of lockdown and homeschooling than we went through. So I think from our listeners, there'll be empathy, but also a feeling of... I can almost feel it emotionally. I could feel it rising in me just hearing about your experience. So a challenging one, no doubt.

I noticed the other day on LinkedIn that you had written that being a parent, you thought made you a better lawyer. And I thought it's particularly interesting that you are still writing that having gone through the challenging experience that you just described. So Kate, why do you think that? Why does it make you a better lawyer? Being a parent? 


Kate Sherburn:
There are a multitude of reasons, but I think one of the big things is that when I became a parent, it opened my eyes that what we say isn't always what's heard. So you can repeat yourself until you're blue in the face. But if you are talking to a child and they don't understand what you're saying, you're just completely wasting your time.


Kate Sherburn:
I think this really translated so well into the business setting because you have to look at things from the perspective of your audience and explain things in a way that they get. That might mean having to try multiple different ways of saying something until it lands. But you have to think about it from their point of view, not just what you are trying to get across.

Parenting is an extreme version of this because kids have much lower concentration levels, language, comprehension, and well, toddlers are toddlers, but I think, particularly as lawyers, it's something to really think about when we look at how we advise our clients. It doesn't matter if the advice we provide is spectacular, technically brilliant. If the recipient isn't able to use that advice because they don't understand it, you may as well have not done any of that work.

I think it's increased my ability to think creatively. I've had to stretch my brain as a parent with questions they've asked or my kids didn't like Vermicelli noodles. So no worries, I'm serving you white spaghetti. And I tell you why that white spaghetti was a hit. They still request it. So you do have to... I think it's probably unlocked a part of my brain that I hadn't used for a really long time. My negotiation skills have improved. Anyone that's spoken to a toddler can understand that. I'm more patient. And I think one of the really, really big things is I'm a lot more productive. I look back at my time pre-kids and you could afford to waste a little bit of time, I think. Or at least I could, because I had that time to waste. Now I just don't. I have to get on with things and I have to be present in what I'm doing, both at work and when I'm with my family.


Ben White:
It sounds like that productivity and a sense of spending your time really, really well. That must have been particularly sharp and dark during that period of homeschooling that you just described.


Kate Sherburn:
Yeah. If you got an hour of uninterrupted time, you had to make the most of it. And when I went out into the sort of family room, I'm lucky in that I have a door that I could close. But when I went out into the family room, I had to be there with my kids. I couldn't be thinking about what was happening in here. They don't let you get away with that. And I think even though over the last couple of years have been really tough, it's certainly honed my ability to single task, which I'm sort of understanding the importance of.


Ben White:
So you were the first in-house lawyer at Who Gives a Crap, what surprised you when you came into that role?

Kate Sherburn:
I mean, it has been an interesting journey because I didn't really know what I was walking into. So a lot surprised me, but I think the biggest thing was how receptive everyone was to having a lawyer in the company. We were small when I started. We only had just over 50 employees and most people hadn't worked with lawyers before, or the few that hadn't always had the best experience. So, I wasn't sure how it would go, but it was really amazing. From day one, I felt supported and like I was part of the team. And it has been genuinely the most collaborative and supportive work environment I've ever experienced.


Ben White:
So tell us a little bit more about it. It sounds like you've grown with the company. What did you learn along the way?


Kate Sherburn:
Oh, it might be quicker to say what I didn't learn. It's been a real learning experience and it still is. It's rare for me not to experience or learn something new each day. Particularly at the beginning, something that I really learned how to do was to listen. This was a very different way to work compared to some of my previous roles.

And I knew that coming in and trying to fit a traditional legal function into this business just wasn't going to work. So I spent a lot of time listening, working out how the best way that a legal team could be integrated into the business and then how we could do that in a way that would work best.

I learned so much about the business itself and I've continued to keep this in mind. Will this work for the business? Will this help the business? And sort of, will this help us achieve our goals?


Ben White:
So tell us a little bit about that business. Obviously, described it a little bit in the intro, but tell us more about Who Gives a Crap and what is its mission?


Kate Sherburn:
So Who Gives a Crap is a company that sells toilet paper, and paper towels, and tissues, and dream cloths. And yes, the exciting product I think at the moment is our limited edition coffee range. We're a social enterprise or a profit for purpose company. So our mission as a business is to ensure that everyone on earth has access to a toilet and safe water by 2050.

When their CEO developed the idea for Who Gives a Crap, he saw that there was this pool of money that got donated to charities who were dealing with these sorts of problems, that that pool couldn't increase unless people put their hands in their pockets to donate more money. So, the idea was that if you took a product that people have to buy like toilet paper, but you donated 50% of those profits to charities that work in that space, then those donations would increase without asking people to just donate more money.

Kate Sherburn:
So businesses have the potential to help make some serious impacts on some really big issues with this model. And we've got some, I mean, we call it our Big Hairy Audacious Goal for a reason. It's a pretty epic goal that we're trying to achieve. In terms of the legal work that I do, it's probably fairly similar to many in-house roles, except I probably get exposed to more toilet jokes and gifts and puns than most lawyers. But the difference that I've found is that we're all working towards the same goal. So at the start of every meeting, we remind ourselves that we are here to ensure everyone on earth has access to a toilet and safe water. So it means that every decision we make, every contractor review, we look at it through this lens, like will this help us achieve that goal?

It does change how we approach things because while I still have to ensure that things are compliant and ensure that I do a thorough legal review, that goal does mean that we can have different priorities to a lot of other companies. I will probably come through, but I absolutely love my job. And I think a lot of that is because we are a mission-based company. The people I work with are amazing, they're so passionate about so many different things. And I'm constantly learning from those around me. But there's also something pretty special about knowing that we are playing a part and working towards something that's bigger than us.


Ben White:
That clarity of mission, I think, is really unusual. And it's so inspiring to hear that, Kate. When you are doing your legal work, if you are reviewing your contract or advising a colleague on the present cons of some new initiative that they might want to get into, having that clarity of purpose, does that help you in helping to guide the business to make those decisions?


Kate Sherburn:
It can, sometimes it can make it a little bit harder. And I think a lot of it was having to change the way I looked at things. One of our values is to stay scrappy, which is not a typical way for a lawyer to work. And it was quite a big adjustment when I first started.

But, it can be quite confronting because sometimes what is the black and white correct legal answer may not actually be the best approach for the business to take. And so there is a lot of risk assessment, which can be really hard to sort of wrap your head around while also making sure that you're not doing anything wrong and you are staying compliant.

So it can be a fine line. And I was the first, I was the only lawyer here for about two years and relied really heavily on my network and sort of external partners to help guide me through some of those decisions. And I now have a second person in our team, and that has been a real game changer. Being able to talk decisions through with her is a really important part of the process.


Ben White:
And when you talk about risk assessment in that context, Kate, is what you are saying that you've had to be asking yourself, not just can we do it, but should we do it? And that's with a lens around the mission, the ethics, the purpose of the company?


Kate Sherburn:
Yeah. So we might be looking at doing some particular promotion or something along those lines, and legally, we can do it, but you have to think about, do we actually want to partner with this person? Not just from a legal perspective, but actually as a business.


Ben White:
I would imagine that a lot of lawyers in that situation would go as far as saying, "Well, legally, we can do it." Someone else's job is now to say, should we do it? But I've done my bit. We'll stop there, legally, we can't, we're done. But it sounds like that's not how your role works.


Kate Sherburn:
No. And I'm not sure whether it is because we still have the start-up mentality, but there is very little that's not my job happening here. Everyone works together. And although people have their skills that they bring to the table, it's much less defined about, well, this is the part that I do and that's the part that you do. We tend to be more collaborative and work through the problems together.


Ben White:
What sort of people work at Who Gives a Crap? What are they like? And what sort of roles do people do? Who do you interact with on a day-to-day basis?


Kate Sherburn:
Legal's a cross-functional role, which I love because it does mean that I can get to talk to everybody in the business. In terms of the teams that we have, they're fairly similar in so many cases. Although our finance team is called the numbers crunchers and our logistics team is called the parcel pushers, which is less common. But we have creative teams, marketing teams, but we also have an insights team and we have an impact team, which probably aren't as common in some other businesses. But our impact team, for example, internally over Christmas did the seven days of impact just internally for us, which was really lovely in the lead up to Christmas.


Ben White:
Kate, it sounds like you take great pleasure and pride in working at Who Gives A Crap, you may know, but our mission at Crafty Counsel is to bring joy, insight, and connection to in-house legal professionals. So I always ask all of our guests, what brings you joy in the workplace and at home?


Kate Sherburn:
I mean, you were very correct there. I find joy in my job. I love working here. I believe in what we do and it's a really rewarding place to work. The company talks about people being first and that really shines through. I really enjoy spending time with the people that I work with. Plus it's really fun. One of our values is deliver and delight and we look to incorporate that into everything, including our work day.

Outside of work, I have a beautiful little family. My husband and I just had our 10th wedding anniversary and I have two children. They keep me on my toes and it's wonderfully chaotic. A big part I think of keeping joy in both aspects is flexibility. I can do school drop off each day when they're at school, I can block time out of my calendar for family time. I can go up to the school assembly in the middle of the day, provided my Slack status is updated so people know where I am. That's completely fine. No one blinks an eye.

I also really enjoy Lego. It did start during our first lockdown when we discovered that it did keep my then four-year-old occupied while my daughter was doing her school work, but it has become a bit of an addiction. And I'm probably the biggest fan. I think it'd be a tough call between me and my son, but it's pretty close. And I'm not sure if this necessarily brings me joy, but it certainly keeps me mentally and physically healthy and that's running and pilates. 

So I go for a run about three to four times a week and I've just signed up for my first marathon. And so I'm training for that. I'm not sure it'll bring me joy, but it will certainly bring a sense of achievement.


Ben White:
Okay, Kate. So we talked about joy. What about challenges? What's the biggest challenge you face in your role?


Kate Sherburn:
There are probably two and one is more work related than one more individual, on an individual level. Because I am really quite passionate about what I do and because I really enjoy it, I have to be really conscious that I do take breaks because it can be easy to just keep going and sort of let it take over. This was especially challenging during lockdowns because there weren't the normal signals that suggest the finish of a day. I wasn't picking the kids up from school or I wasn't running to catch a train.

So I've now built things in. I have a reminder in my calendar, that's like, "Hey, stop what you're doing now, family time." And that has helped again with making sure I'm focused on what I'm doing at the time. But then once I move on to something else, I'm fully present.

On a work level, as a company that is open and transparent about how we are trying to do good, we can be put on a higher standard than other companies. And while it's ultimately a good thing that consumers expect more from the companies that they interact with and buy from, I think sometimes we can be put to a higher standard and questioned about things that perhaps other companies aren't.

Ben White:
Yeah, that must be challenging. I'm guessing that particularly with these lockdowns, technology must have been crucial to allow you to do your job. There's a lot of discussion around use of tech by lawyers, legal tech tools, et cetera. How does tech impact your role?

Kate Sherburn:
So we use tech quite a lot, even sort of pre-pandemic because we're a global company and a lot of people work from home. So we did utilise a lot of tech to enable that collaboration across time zones and geographies. For the legal team, in particular, when I first started, it was just me and it was just me for quite a while. So as a business, we were doubling in size every year, but I couldn't double my capacity. So we utilised tech in that way. So as a start-up, we were pretty tech savvy already, but what we didn't have was any process.

And so, I sort of looked at how the business was operating and what would work for us and I introduced tech solutions to essentially increase capacity. So this included things like templates. So I could get simple documents out really quickly and efficiently. Matter Intake, so I could keep track of where matters were at and could communicate that easily to the business. So we weren't wasting time chasing up things over Slack. And even something as simple as a contract register. It made a huge difference because we were no longer wasting time trying to find out where contracts were and we didn't miss any key dates.

Now that we have two people, it's still fairly new. Our second team member started about three months ago. Tech means that we can allocate work appropriately. We know where we're up to without having to constantly ask. I have met her once in person, but we've never worked together in the same room. So we've looked at each other's family rooms, but never actually stepped foot in the same office.

We're now also investigating some no-code automation to start working towards self-service with the business. And we're looking at doing that this year. So I'm really excited about that.

Ben White:
So, the tools that you've been using so far, so you mentioned Matter Intake, tracking where people are in their projects, et cetera, are you tending to use purpose-built legal tech or are you sort of repurposing perhaps existing technology that the rest of the business is already using? What's been your approach?

Kate Sherburn:
A little bit of both. So the Matter Intake is legal tech and the no-code automation is very much focused at legal teams. However, already other teams in our business are seeing where they could utilise it. But we also do have other tools that the business uses like Monday.com, for example, that project management tool, we do utilise that as well. And that was something that was pre-existing.

Ben White:
Great. With time available, Kate, the wider legal sector, that you've spent many years in private practice at Norton Rose Fulbright. You're now clearly in a very different culture, different type of role. When you look at the wider legal sector, is there one thing that you wish legal would start doing or indeed stopped doing?

Kate Sherburn:
Yes. One thing I wish the legal industry would stop doing is remove barriers that working parents, particularly working mothers face. And something I sort of raised earlier, but does seem to be this idea that once you become a mother, you no longer have the same ability to do your job or that you aren't as dedicated or something like that. I've seen it time and time again, where those working flexibly are looked down upon for not pulling their weight. And that just isn't true. Like I said before, I'm so much more productive now than when I was pre-kids.

I'd like to think that this is changing and that the last couple of years has changed that. I don't have as much oversight now because I am so lucky where I am, that is not an issue at all, but I've seen people in other companies and firms almost pretend they don't have families at home when they're at work. Like during work hours, their families just aren't acknowledged for fear that they'll be treated differently or that they were considered not committed enough. I am most definitely a better lawyer now than I was pre-children. And while some of that is experience, I'm obviously more experienced now. An awful lot is literally because of what I have learned as a parent.


Ben White:
Do you think that cultural difference in terms of how parents, particularly mothers, are perceived, do you think it lands differently in private practice versus in in-house?

Kate Sherburn:
Based on my limited view, yes. Based on what I've experienced and based on what friends have experienced, I think a lot of that has to do with who also works in those places. It is starting to change, but traditionally partnership, older males, and often those that have families have had wives that have been home looking up to their children. And so it's a completely different experience. I worked with some amazing partners who weren't like that at all, but they were the minority voices. My experience in-house has certainly been much more positive, but by putting a disclaimer there that I can't actually guarantee that that is the case, that is based on my personal experience.

Ben White:
Noted. Disclaimer, dearly acknowledged. Finally, Kate, looking back on everything that you've done and achieved so far and all your experiences, is there one piece of advice that you have received and still use and you'd like to share?

Kate Sherburn:
I think the best advice I've received was to make your own opportunities. Things won't just fall in your lap. So not only should you keep your eyes open for opportunities that are around you, but if you see something that you want, you should actively go for it.

Ben White:
What a lovely piece of advice to have received and to pass on. Thank you very much for spending the time talking to me. It's been an absolute delight.

Kate Sherburn:
Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.

Outro:
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