Kylie Dunn's promotion to partner at Russell McVeagh was no April Fool's joke. But just to be sure, the employment law specialist took the precaution of not changing her LinkedIn profile until after midday, when the news was announced on April 1. The beginning of this month was a busy time in the wider employment law area. A slew of legislative changes came into force, including the extension of paid parental leave, the end of zero-hours contracts and the new Health and Safety at Work Act. Though Dunn, 36, has been keeping clients up to date with the new laws, her passion is unscrambling employment issues and sorting out industrial stoushes. Dunn's path into law began when her year five teacher told her she was smart enough to be either a lawyer or doctor. Unable to cope with the sight of blood, she opted for law. "I went to an all-girls secondary school and it had never crossed my mind that I couldn't do exactly what I wanted to." Her first year of law school left her fairly disenchanted, but a summer clerkship with Russell McVeagh's employment law team fired her enthusiasm again. It combined the intellectual challenge of law with a specialisation requiring strategy and the ability to read people. She's the only one of her graduating intake at Russell McVeagh not to have left at some point to work overseas - definitely the road less travelled, Dunn says. During a trip to France for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, she seriously considered staying on, but all she saw at the big London firms were her friends doing the corporate support work, such as due diligence and drafting agreements. "That's a part of my role but it's not my favourite part," she says. "I like the dispute side or the problem area, which is mostly the domain of barristers in places like London." One dispute that became a career defining moment for Dunn involved the late John Haigh, QC and former Russell McVeagh supervising partner Richard McIlraith representing Ports of Auckland in a 2012 industrial wrangle. "It was fair to say it was a pretty intense period, but what that taught me was that I want to be one of the people in the room," says Dunn. "I didn't want to be the third person down in the team; I want to one day lead the team. "I could see John and Richard in action and they were great in involving me and asking for my views and things like that, which was excellent, but I thought 'no, I don't just want to be in this position all the time, so how am I going to get from where I am now to where they were, leading the case?' "It was just a real eye-opener for me, realising that I could actually do that; I did have the ability to stand in their shoes."
I didn't want to be the third person down in the team; I want to one day lead the team.Dunn says part of making the jump to a bigger role was making it clear to people that you want to be that person. "That was quite a big step for me. "I knew I could do it but I was slightly more reticent to say that to people. "It feels like a 'big noter' thing to say." She set about actively seeking opportunities to be that person, and not just in a work context. For the past nine years she has been on the board of trustees at Carmel College, her old secondary school, with the past six as chairperson. Dunn has also been keen to soak up the lessons learned by those who have gone before her. One such person was Miriam Dean, QC. Speaking at a function for the firm's senior women leaders, Dean said it was critical to make sure the person who is your champion in the organisation is not the person you go and talk to about your mistakes. "Sitting there I thought: that's me; I do that all the time. "Making a clear dividing line between that, I think, has helped me a lot in terms of how I think people perceive me, but also my focus as well." In 1987 Dean was the first woman appointed a partner at Russell McVeagh. Today, 10 of the firm's 34 partners are women, and Dunn says that of the past 10 appointed, six were women, a fairer reflection of the numbers of female law graduates. Though she has seen contempo raries take a career break, scale back their work or leave the profession entirely to look after families, Dunn isn't sure there is a clear answer to the problem that at the same time most women are pushing for career advancement, they are also considering whether it's the right time to start a family. "I think there's only the idea of supporting a return to the workforce in as flexible manner as possible for both men and women; so not leaving the burden on women just because they happen to have been the ones that gave birth to the children." Dunn has just employed a senior solicitor returning from overseas with a young child, who will work two days in the office and one split between home and the office. "I don't just want a senior solicitor, I want her, so how am I going to make it work?"