Women In Law: Chaman Sidhu, General Counsel at Xero, Talks Leadership, Wellness And Discovering A Career That You Love


In the March issue of BucketOrange Magazine, we catch up with Chaman Sidhu, general counsel at Xero. When it comes to legal careers, she’s enjoyed one of the most fascinating and diverse. Having earned an LL.B at the University of Queensland, an LL.M at New York University and worked as a justice’s associate at the Supreme Court of Queensland, her early career in corporate law included roles at Allens in Australia and Kirkland Ellis in the U.S. As a general counsel, she’s represented some of the most well-regarded and forward-thinking companies in the Southern Hemisphere, including Lonely Planet and Envato. In her current role at Xero, Chaman also works with the board as corporate secretary. We caught up with her to find out a bit more about her experiences and insights as a female leader in the legal industry and her advice for young lawyers. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to study law?

I’ve had a love for words since middle high school, which is what drew me to the law, but then I found a path more in the business and tech space. I was fortunate to have a strong female role model in my mother, who was the first female Sikh to graduate from a Malaysian university. Her example helped me shape my own career aspirations.  

You have had an interesting career. Did you expect to have such an enviable career path?

I had originally envisioned myself in a legal advocacy role, in a courtroom. What I discovered after finishing law school was that I preferred something far more collaborative and relationship-building than the litigation process. And that led me to this path, which I hadn’t at all expected but love. The role of general counsel, which I’ve held for over 15 years at several companies, has been an excellent fit. Xero was a business I had been following with great interest in terms of both its culture and values, and what it does for small business. It was a natural development from Envato, which also does great things for small business, in the creative online space. The Xero role was a dream job, really, and spoke to my passion for working for companies with a mission I can really believe in.

Did you have a mentor during your early legal career? If so, did you find it to be a valuable experience and would you recommend that recent graduates seek guidance and collegiality from a more experienced colleague they respect and admire?

For young lawyers, building a network of mentors is key for success. I actually didn’t act on this common advice until well into my career, but learned and grew by working with some amazing leaders and colleagues. It’s never too late to start searching for mentors. I’ve become passionate about mentoring younger lawyers through the Association of Corporate Counsel here in Australia.

The first reported study into depression in the Australian legal community ‘Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners,’ published in 2009 by the Brain & Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney, revealed a high level of psychological distress and risk of depression in law students and practising lawyers when compared with Australian community norms and other tertiary student groups. How important is it to develop healthy long-term wellness strategies and to cultivate support networks when working in the law, especially as a woman?

It’s incredibly important to have wellness strategies and the right networks. It’s something I can improve on, even after making it a personal focus in the last decade of my career. My biggest tip is to not try to do it all yourself. Get support to step back and take the time to find the way to step off of what can sometimes feel like a mouse-wheel. A big factor is learning how to balance our professional service mindset as lawyers (meeting the needs of others) with our own needs and well-being.

Having a supportive work culture is important too. Realistically, you’re going to spend a large portion of your time at the office, so finding a place that champions your team’s well-being and provides support can be a major factor in finding mental balance and helping you do your best work.

What has been your greatest achievement to date?

One of the things I’m most proud of is having led global legal functions out of Australia and New Zealand for companies that are punching above their weight. I’m also honoured to be working with so many distinguished, innovative people on Xero’s board including co-founder Rod Drury.

Who, or what, inspires or drives you?

My team! Among many things, the Xero Legal team successfully negotiates with huge players on a worldwide scale, while living and breathing the values of our company — and that’s championing small businesses and bridging the gap between them and their accountants and bookkeepers so that they can really succeed.

What music helps you lawyer at your best?

To get a sense of my musical tastes, have a look at the lineup for the WOMAdelaide festival! It’s an annual world music festival in Adelaide, and I’m looking forward to it. There’s just an amazingly inclusive vibe, a kids’ zone and lots of great music. It’s my happy place.

What is your favourite law hack or life hack at the moment? 

If you’re a small business, there are now great options to get quick, affordable legal advice through different platforms connecting small business and individuals with lawyers. It’s an option to get started when you’re launching, running and growing a business. And know your rights as a small business when dealing with larger players.

BucketOrange Magazine / March 2017 🍊

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