Words by Emily Ainsworth, photography by David Field
Her origins in Newtown play an enormous role in Mary Digiglio’s identity, informing her keen sense of social justice, passion for mental wellbeing and generous spirit. Mary proudly tells the story of her paternal grandparents’ fruit shop at 175 King Street, which acted as a hub for Italian migrants both before and after the Second World War and often accommodated the parents of sick children from country New South Wales visiting their children in the nearby Children’s Hospital.
“People would get off the bus outside my grandfather’s shop to go and visit children in hospital… My grandfather would quite often befriend them and let them leave their luggage in the shop. If they were from the country, he’d offer for them to stay in the residence above the shop, as accommodation was not always easy to find.”
“My mother’s family are Irish-Australian and descendants of convicts. Both of my parents were born and raised in Newtown, so their families knew each other when my parents were young, notwithstanding the different cultural heritage. My mother went to school with my father's sisters and both families were members of the same Church parish in Newtown. During my life, as people have recounted stories about my grandfathers, there is a common thread - they were both authentic, highly regarded and generous men.”
Mary also describes how she is told that when her grandparents owned the fruit shop, children weren’t allowed inside pubs, so women would often sit outside the pubs with their children waiting for their husbands. Mary's paternal grandmother would make hot chips from the potatoes in the fruit shop and her grandfather would take them across the road to the children.
These stories of community, generosity and industry have always struck a chord with Mary, who was the only one in her nuclear family to attend university.
“My maternal grandfather was very intelligent but came from a poor family and was required to leave school to work for an income as an early teenager. This made access to education virtually impossible. It was only as I became older that I realised what a missed opportunity this was.”
“I grew up in an environment where there was always a strong passion for giving to those who were less fortunate. My roots about caring for the underdog can be traced back to the mentality of all four of my grandparents.”
Mary is also highly conscious of the privilege that comes with her role as a lawyer.
“Everything in my life is a privilege. This is not lost on me and I try to live my life through that lens.”
As the Managing Partner of Swaab, Mary has positioned wellness as a topic of crucial importance, acknowledging that it is something which requires greater focus in the legal profession.
“My passion over the last five years has been to advocate for wellness across the legal profession. As the Managing Partner I am lucky enough to be able to weave the importance of wellness into the fabric of our culture - something that has proved to be immensely satisfying.”
In 2015, Mary joined the board of the Minds Count Foundation, then known as the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.
“Wellness was always important to me, but it wasn’t until I became a board member that I realised how much of an issue this was for many people across the legal profession.”
When Mary went to her first Minds Count Foundation annual lecture in 2014, the co-founder (Marie Jepson) spoke about how the majority of the Foundation’s financial support came from law students.
“This had a real impact on me. It was a room packed full of lawyers, and yet the majority of funding was coming from the people in the room who could least afford it. We need a much bigger investment by those who are able to afford it.”
Mary explains how improving an organisation’s culture around wellness is a two-step process.
“Firstly, there are the 'things' you can implement - in our organisation we have mindfulness courses, salary continuance insurance, employee assistance program, yoga, a big social calendar, a positive approach to flexible working and more.”
“Secondly, in order to give these 'things' value, there needs to be a real change in mindset and behaviour. In our firm, when we hire people, we hire the whole person. We can’t live in a world where we expect people to answer emails and take calls while on holidays and yet at the same time expect them to leave their personal lives at the door.”
“I lead by example. I share with our firm some of my own very real vulnerabilities rather than hide behind a facade that because I’m a partner I must have everything under control. This gives people permission to do the same and fosters greater inclusivity and wellness.”
Copyright Field, Doraisamy, Standish and Ainsworth 2016-2019