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Solicitor Cicely Sylow had to re-invent herself when she moved from Sydney to a regional area, leaving private practice for a role as in-house counsel. But her new life greatly exceeded her expectations.

Nautical images spring to mind when you talk to Cicely Sylow, General Counsel at the Birdon Group. It’s inevitable: Sylow works for a marine company, lives in a coastal area, and applies her legal skills to the family business: two caravan parks situated close to the water.

Given her manner – an engaging mix of equilibrium and enthusiasm – one has the sense that Sylow’s life is in full sail.

Sylow is a life-long traveller. Born in Zimbabwe, she spent her early years there before moving to South Africa, the UK, Switzerland and Norway. As a student at the International School in Geneva, she was excited by her education, and motivated by her stepmother’s career as a diplomat.

“I really wanted to get into government relations and diplomacy,” Sylow says. “I thought law would be a good complement to that.”

Her father was an Australian citizen, so she was able to move here when she finished school and study law at the University of Sydney. She gained a combined Bachelor of Laws/Arts degree and a Master of Laws.

A decade of private practice and in-house experience followed in Sydney.

Then, five years ago, Sylow moved with her husband and two children to Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast. She and her husband had previously bought a caravan park in the area, and, she says, he had been “travelling back and forth” to ensure the business was going well. They made their move while she was on her third maternity leave. “The plan worked, and we stayed,” Sylow says. They bought a second caravan park, and her husband runs them both.

Uncharted waters

Seasoned traveller though she was, Sylow was apprehensive about this move to uncharted waters. Her husband had grown up in the area, but for Sylow the move presented both a professional and personal challenge.

Her first concern was about finding work. “When I first came up, I thought, what could I do in a meaningful way? My training is all corporate commercial law and, more specifically, competition law. The law firms here, I saw, were smaller business and personal types of legal services, criminal law, wills and estates – nothing in my own natural skill set.”

Then she found a position as General Counsel with the Birdon Group, a global company servicing the maritime, military and resource sectors.

“Even though they’re a global company, their Australian headquarters are based regionally, which is quite unusual,” Sylow says. In her role, she leads the team that provides legal advice to Birdon across all facets of its diverse business.

“I’ve just been so lucky that I’ve been able to find an opportunity that provides very complex and challenging work,” Sylow says. “It really exceeded my expectations that I would find this kind of work regionally. It’s a company in a growth phase, contesting the marketplace and doing really well. They’re innovative. They make things happen.”

‘I’ve just been so lucky that I’ve been able to find an opportunity that provides very complex and challenging work. It really exceeded my expectations that I would find this kind of work regionally.’

Sylow says, “It’s one of the most dynamic environments I’ve worked in, and I like the speed. I like the challenges, and the fact that everybody leans in, and that they’re all about getting the right outcome.”

Putting the puzzle together

Sylow is excited about the diversity of the work: “Birdon offers the full gamut – cradle to grave for the marine sector”, she says. This encompasses design, building, operating, maintaining, and disposing of marine vessels and associated structures.

“We also have an environment team that operates our dredging and disposals projects,” Sylow explains, “and the depth and breadth of expertise on that team has seen Birdon secure some great contracts on the east and west coast of Australia. Birdon has an excellent track record of recycling up to 97 per cent of assets it disposes of.”

Concerning the risks, Sylow explains: “they’re different for every client. Ours is a company that has succeeded because it understands how to manage risk well. A big part of my role internally is looking at how we allocate and accept risk.”

Birdon’s clients are as varied as its work. “We do a lot of bespoke contracts, but we also contract using standard local and state government contracts as well as Commonwealth Defence contracts.”

Sylow enjoys the atmosphere at work. “People are excited about their work. We’ve had some pretty tricky ones … we disposed of a large derelict vessel recently. This was a challenging undertaking. We had to manage and negotiate the transfer of risk between ourselves, contractors, insurers, various layers of government. But we achieved it, we managed it really well. It’s like this really big, complex puzzle. And what I love about working there is that we all put that puzzle together. Everybody there is a real expert in their field.”

‘It’s like this really big, complex puzzle. And what I love about working there is that we all put that puzzle together. Everybody is a real expert in their field.’

Sylow is equally enthusiastic about the legal team she manages. “A recent addition to the team was a lawyer who started with us as a summer clerk.”

She credits Birdon with innovation in its approach to legal staffing. “It’s not often you can do summer clerkship as an in-house lawyer, and some might say it’s unheard of in a regional town. But Birdon let me trial  two students. One student was offered the opportunity to stay on while she completed her studies and she has just been admitted. So she’s now with us as a lawyer. The other member of the legal team here has been practising for more than five years and is a recently returned Port Macquarie local.

The connectivity concern

While Sylow’s first concern with moving to the regions was about finding fulfilment as a professional, her second concern was a social one.

“I just didn’t want to have to re-create all my networks and replace my close friendships. But the move absolutely exceeded my expectations in terms of connectivity. The connections here are stronger amongst people [than in Sydney]. And you see people more often, and there’s much more sense of community. It’s easier to get around.”

The local nature of Birdon contributes to her sense of being embedded in the community, even after only living there five years, Sylow says.

“We deal with local businesses and have a local workforce. The business has deep local roots.”

She adds, with evident pride, “one of the contracts that Birdon was awarded recently was to construct a replacement Young Endeavour, a training vessel for young Australians, and that has a whole community element to it.”

In the family’s caravan park business, too, Sylow is strongly connected with the community, and can bring her legal skills to bear on supporting the sector.

The parks offer both short-term and permanent accommodation, and the latter, Sylow says, is for “people who’re often above the age of 55, and vulnerable. The government supports this form of affordable housing: they’re protected in terms of the legislation and receive rental assistance.”

“As a legal practitioner,” she continues, “I understand how to read the legislation in context, and coming from a competition law background, I’ve been trained to understand the policies and economics that sit behind the legislation. Coming into that type of business I really understood the context of what we could achieve for that sector.”

Knowing the area is prone to floods, Sylow uses her legal skills to drive innovation in the types of dwellings that can be installed in the caravan parks to address flood risks.

“My husband and I are developing a dwelling capable of floating in response to flooding events. We’ve been able to demonstrate a design that’s fit for purpose. We were awarded a grant to build a prototype. We’ve been successful in terms of securing grant funding, because we’ve been able to demonstrate both value to the community and innovation.”

The family’s caravan park business has also been able to support people affected by disasters in another way. “We had a couple of natural disasters here with the fires in 2019 to 2020, and one of our caravan parks was flooded in 2021.”

Many of the caravan park residents have dementia, Sylow notes. Consequently, though there were grant programs available, they were unable to access these or other forms of government assistance.

“They forgot to submit the paperwork, for example,” she explains. “So even though they filled it out they never actually received the grants. When we realised this, we prepared a booklet for caravan park managers that was then shared throughout the industry. It communicates how you can create a network of support around the community in your park, using various community service providers to widen residents’ network of care, so that fewer people with dementia will fall through the cracks in critical times.”

An ongoing exposure to learning

Sylow believes a business operates best when expertise is shared. “Delivering the best outcome requires contribution from all the different experts at Birdon. You couldn’t do it without everybody.” And she would like to increase her expertise to contribute further to her work.

As in-house counsel, she says, in terms of “access to information and resources, being on the pulse, you don’t have that immediate framework of support that you get in a law firm, but you still want to be able to deliver a really high-quality product internally.”

‘As in-house counsel, in terms of access to information and resources, you don’t have that immediate framework of support that you get in a law firm, but you still want to be able to deliver a really high-quality product internally.’

Sylow adds, “You’ve only got one client, so you really get to know the business and the depths of it inside and out. You can see the decision making internally in action, and how trade-offs are being made across the business.”

However, this can present difficulties, she advises. “It’s hard to have perspective as in-house counsel because you’re so entwined in the business and can become emotionally invested in the process. In private practice you have the luxury of perspective. It’s easier to be really focused on the position you’re protecting because you’re one step removed.  You also get to see so many more examples of how other companies are doing things.

“As in-house counsel I need to network harder, learn a lot more by proactively reaching out and learning from my network, seek out that ongoing exposure to learning that I had when I was working in private practice.”

Sylow joined the Law Society of NSW’s In-House Corporate Counsel Committee last year to increase her exposure to what in-house counsel in other types of businesses are doing. She was also motivated by the desire to discover how in-house counsel can be supported.

Sylow says her participation in the Committee has enabled her to “understand how we can deliver services to in-house counsel, through information sessions and speakers, and make sure that those sessions are relevant and of high quality.”

Sylow’s committee membership has also had another benefit, she says. “It’s been a forum for understanding how the Law Society can supplement the career development of our in-house teams. And for understanding how I can contribute to that, to make sure that resources [to support the teams] are available and well-produced. I want to give the lawyers in my team, the first-time lawyer and the mid-career lawyer, a sense of career progression. See them perform really well and love their job.”

Transportable skills

Sylow chooses to travel to Sydney for the Committee’s regular meetings, to meet in person with the other members. This reinforces the benefits of networking for her. But she is always pleased to return home to Port Macquarie.

Her experience in various legal roles, including in her family business, has taught her that “legal skills are transportable”.

“With lawyers,” she adds, “you have great skill sets that you can employ in many ways, so you could transition into, say, running a business, or working in a different kind of practice, as I have.

“There’s just so many opportunities. You have skills and capability, you have the ability to make change and have an impact – it’s just whether you have the enthusiasm for change and something different.”