Eleanor Kwak / Special Counsel / Johnson Winter Slattery  / 
Arsenic Hour

story / Interview / June 4, 2023

I qualified as a lawyer in 2004, and since then I’ve worked in Melbourne, Dubai and in London. Real estate has been my focus in every jurisdiction. It’s been interesting to see how differently real estate is dealt with around the world and to meet so many people from different cultures with different expertise and perspectives, especially in Dubai. I found it a real melting pot. London as well. I think it just opened my eyes to the world really.

We’re the sum of our experiences, aren’t we? I’ve always been passionate about diversity. I grew up surrounded by people from many different walks of life. The well to do. The salt of the earth. Bohemians. My parents are total opposites. My mum is a Melbournite of impeccable taste and my dad is an unconventional Dutch geologist and world-renowned academic. I have travelled widely since I turned sixteen. Backpacked around Egypt, hitchhiked around Switzerland and was even made an impromptu bridesmaid for an Indian wedding. I’m fascinated by people’s stories and also this has showed me that people are just people.

I think I feel more comfortable in diverse environments. It wasn’t until I went overseas that I really saw how much wider the net of diversity could be cast here in Australia. I think it’s getting a bit better, but we’ve got a long way to go – and we need to. Innovation doesn’t thrive in a monoculture. There’s so much we can do to see a greater representation of different perspectives in the property industry and to champion different voices. But we need to create those opportunities. We need to stretch our imaginations as to what that could achieve if leveraged to its full potential. Because there’s power and magic in diversity and I think it is the key to shared prosperity.

I’m Chair of the Social Infrastructure Committee for the Property Council of Victoria. It matters to me that people in this country have a home and a sense of community and that we are building infrastructure in a way that is sustainable and supports the needs of many generations to come – and that means adapting to the changing landscape of this country.

I’d like to see more targets that create diversity because I personally think that we’ll only get there with targets. As they say, you can’t be what you can’t see. It’d be great to inspire a whole new generation of people to see themselves as leaders in the legal and property industry, because they can see people like themselves.

I think it’s important to nurture the next generation. I’m a mentor to a few young and high-performing property industry professionals. I love it when we can take the time to catch up for coffee and I can talk to them about what their challenges are. To me, mentoring is about empowering people to build their networks, helping them see their unique strengths and instilling in them the confidence to dream big and find opportunities for growth.

I’m a real estate law specialist at Johnson Winter Slattery where I lead the real estate practice in Melbourne. I work on a range of property transactions across the spectrum of real estate asset classes. I was initially attracted to work in real estate because the people I liked the most worked in that industry and they were generous with their time in teaching me. As a young lawyer I was inspired by how our clients got projects off the ground and their ambitions to build a better Melbourne.

I’m energised by big ideas. I love bringing the law to those ideas and facilitating the achievement of a client’s goals by using the law and outlining the legal opportunities and challenges. Australian society along with technology and the real estate market are evolving and we’re in a real growth period with new asset classes disrupting the market, like Build to Rent. It’s getting more complex to put deals together and I find this exciting. I am grateful for my life experience because it helps me empathise with the numerous parties involved and also think outside the box to find solutions. The law is always a few steps behind society. So a good real estate lawyer needs to be able to think on their feet.

Learning more about the industry and what drives our clients is a challenge and it’s an opportunity. I love the clients that invite us to their strategy days, and some do because they know that if you really want your lawyers to give you the best possible advice, they need to understand your strategy. I also love going out and visiting projects and learning about the challenges that the commercial managers and teams involved in the development phase have, because then I can feed that into how we service our clients and try to reduce the barriers between lawyers, developers, investors and other stakeholders.

I’m very hands on in the work that I do and I’m very accessible to our clients. I’m always at the end of my mobile phone, even if I’m attending to the needs of my two little kids. When you’ve got very young babies, you’re battling fatigue a lot. It’s a whole new world. It takes a long time to learn how to juggle home life with work life. Everyone’s got their own style. Some people set up clear barriers between what happens at home, what happens at work. I prefer to just go with the flow. I’m lucky that a lot of clients have families of their own and they get it.

It’s probably been the greatest challenge of my career, coming back into the workforce after having children and learning how to work differently. You don’t want to mess up your children’s lives and you want to be the best parent you can be. But at the same time, you want to expand your professional life. I’d like to see a lot more support for parents returning to work. Everybody is different. We need to stop judging and instead support parents’ choices about what they do and how they do it.

I get passionate about this because my parents divorced when I was seven and I was raised mostly by my mum – a single mum with six kids. Can you imagine? I guess that inspires me because she always worked to provide for us. She’s a legend. In the end, she ended up CEO of a company. Every single one of my siblings is hard working and well educated. So, I think people need to understand the value of working mothers and the example they set for their children. Mum woke up every day and gave it her best and she’s our living proof you can raise a family and have a successful career.

I recently joined the Board of Women’s Property Initiatives and I feel really privileged to be able to contribute my skills and expertise to their impact agenda. Given my upbringing I feel a strong personal connection with the work they do in providing permanent and affordable housing for women and children. At arsenic hour – you know, around 5:00 o’clock when you have very young babies who start screaming and are unsettled – Mum would sometimes come over with a bottle of champagne and pour me a glass and ride out the arsenic hour with me. It was just the blooming best. You need someone to come over for arsenic hour.

 

We are thrilled, after our hiatus, to finally bring you Eleanor’s interview. It was great to catch up with Eleanor and speak to her about her career, the juggle of family and career, and mentoring the next generation. Eleanor is passionate about change and impact, and has been prolific in finding ways to make change for the better. And we think her mum is a legend too! Wishing Eleanor all the best for the rest of 2023! D & N x

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