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Circuit-breaking reflection triggers back-pocket CPD opportunity

08 August 2019 - By Jock Anderson

After lawyering in New Zealand and Australia for nine years, Sarah Alderson recently returned to her Christchurch home town to launch PocketLegal – a “back-pocket” CPD and networking business.

“I think I have a unique view on what continuing professional development can bring practitioners and I am trying to bring a new voice to education and networking for the profession in Christchurch. If nothing else it may be an interesting ‘alternatives to practice’ take on the law,” she says.

“I looked at the profession and saw there was a lack of collegiality. There was a lack of engagement with CPD. The whole idea of networking in New Zealand versus Australia seemed to be non-existent.

NameSarah Jane (Sarah) Alderson
BornChristchurch
Age33
Entry to lawGraduated BA (English Literature) and LLB from Canterbury University in 2008. Admitted in 2009.
WorkplacePocketLegal, Christchurch.
Speciality areaContinuing professional development and networking company for lawyers.

“When I looked at the current CPD offerings they all seemed so staid. There was a blind adherence to the requirement to do 10 hours each year. People would go to the same seminars each year and largely hear from the same speakers and the thing that surprised me was practitioners didn’t know a lot about the rules.

Sarah Alderson

“I started thinking about what I could do in that space that engaged all the strengths I thought I had and spoke to some of the issues I felt law had that could really be improved upon.”

Sarah wrote a blogpost about what CPD requirements were, emphasising the flexibility to bend them to anything needed for practice and within a lawyer’s personal life.

“I had a flood of emails from people, who had never read the rules and didn’t realise they could do things that were not just black letter law courses. You could do anything that spoke to any sort of professional need that you had.

“The CPD as it is offered is only an offering for a lawyer, but we are so much more than that. We are people who have families, dealing with stress, learning to manage other people - these are all hard skills that need to be taught and learned that could be offered as CPD activities.

“I felt I had not been able to indulge the creativity I have always had with writing. I loved languages, I wanted to be able to write more freely, to be creative, to continue to learn, to engage with people. So PocketLegal was born.

“I liked the idea that CPD could be something that would be with you, in your back pocket. Something you could pull out and refer to. A bank of education and learning that went with you throughout the year. I am about face-to-face seminars and good food. I always cater my seminars and most of the feedback was on how awesome the food was.”

Mentoring with a top defence barrister

After graduating from Canterbury University in 2008 Sarah went straight to Auckland to do her professionals at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies (IPSL). “At the end of five years at university I felt a desperate need to get out into the world and earn some money and leave as much of that studying behind as I could.”

With an interest at law school in criminal law, she worked in the criminal summary jurisdiction registry at Auckland District Court, before being taken under the wing of senior criminal defence barrister Maria Pecotic.

“She was a fantastic first mentor and taught me a lot about good advocacy and hard work. Whether she knew it or not she taught me that line that particularly criminal advocates dance between being a dispassionate and fearless advocate and having compassion as a representative for the people that you work with.

“But changes in the legal aid system at that time made it difficult for me to advance as a barrister, being so junior, and it was hard for me to get work.

“To ensure I honed my skills and to get a flow of work I moved to the Public Defence Service (PDS) in 2010 and worked for them for two years out of the North Shore District Court.

“It was an awesome time, incredibly stressful, and a helluva learning curve. The PDS was no longer a pilot project and was growing exponentially but struggling to provide a good model for mentoring and oversight for their junior staff.

“Like most young practitioners I felt itchy feet to see the world a bit and get moving, but London never did it for me. Lots of my friends moved there but I couldn’t think of anything worse, so at the end of 2012 I moved to Melbourne instead.”

Sarah spent three years in Melbourne, working in-house for QBE Insurance on personal injury claims, work cover legislation and litigation and as the company’s representative at conciliation and mediation conferences.

“I wanted to broaden my skills beyond criminal law, while keeping elements of criminal law. But I was met with a solid wall of ‘this is all you have ever done, therefore it’s all you’ll ever do’.

“I refused to accept that. It was a conflicting point for me to say once I had done criminal that was it, I was pigeon-holed. I like to prove a point, I like to be told I can’t do something. I proved a point by going to work in-house for QBE.”

A job in Sydney with the New South Wales Police Association represented a greater broadening of experience for Sarah.

“It crossed over with my experience working with police in the past in criminal law. They needed someone who could do contentious worker’s compensation matters, but also discrimination, employment law, in-house human resources and governance issues.

“I flew to Sydney for the day on a cheap Jetstar ticket, and got the train to the interview, Thankfully, the interview did not go on too long because I had a non-refundable cheap ticket to get back the same afternoon. I ran to Martin Place, got on a train to Kingsford Smith airport and was back in Melbourne for dinner. And I got the job.

“My now husband and I moved to Sydney, which was bittersweet for us because we loved Melbourne. It’s a real cultural hub - fabulous coffee and an awesome art and fashion scene. The Melbourne/Sydney difference is similar to the Christchurch/Auckland one.”

Waiheke Island

After the NSW Police Association, Sarah worked in-house for an American software company in Sydney, then had their son, who is now two. “My husband had a contract to finish for six months, then we came back and lived at Rocky Bay on Waiheke Island for a year from the start of 2018. I had our daughter there, she’s now 10 months.

“The year we were on Waiheke I spent a lot of time at home. I think having children for me was a great circuit breaker, it often is for women in the professions.

“It’s a great time for reflection and naturally resetting priorities. I feel for men sometimes in that they don’t get that break to reconsider everything. I was thinking about what I would do when I went back professionally, in a formal sense.

”I had been writing for LexisNexis since my son was six months old, so I was working. I put together a list of things I liked about law and working in it, what I considered my strengths and weaknesses were as a professional person. I’m a very ordered person so writing lists comes to me quite naturally.

“It confirmed what I always felt that I loved law because it is about stories. It involved people I got to meet, to know. I loved the connections it offered and it gave me academic satisfaction. And I loved continued learning.

“I love to learn because I think it makes life richer. Law appealed to my sense of order and routine. But going back to practice fell short in a couple of key areas.

“I didn’t think it was going to offer me the sort of flexibility I truly wanted, at least not in the way I wanted to practice it. Four days a week working in a firm, which is often touted as the part-time option, was not part-time to me. I wanted to do something on my own and I wanted my own time to be true to my own.”

Sarah retains her practising certificate but no longer offers legal services,

Her first seminar in May was called Legal Kai - a basic te reo Māori language course for lawyers, pitched at interactions around cultural norms.

An August ethical lawyer workshop with Christchurch barrister Kathryn Dalziel looks at some of the harder black letter law, with an opportunity also to talk about grey areas in practice.

PocketLegal courses in September focus on wellbeing, prioritising wellbeing and mental health and a workshop on mindfulness.

“I’m pitching seminars I wanted to attend when I was practising, but didn’t have that opportunity. They are all relevant to the practice of law. And a valid CPD claimable activity that could be very beneficial for practitioners.”

Sarah’s husband is a business analyst and his family are all in Christchurch. Her mother is retired in Auckland and is making the move to Christchurch soon. Her father died in 2014.

An older brother working in business start-ups lived in San Francisco for a number of years, and recently moved to Seattle.

“Dad played a role in the circuit breaker. There is nothing quite like the death of someone close to you to not only experience the complete finality that is death but to shock you into that realisation that my days need to count.

“It is not enough to sit slightly bored in a job or wondering what could have been or to have a dream about what might work and not do it because of the fear of failure. Dad was someone who had a change of career, lived life passionately and did a lot that he should have been very proud of.

“So when I was thinking of striking out on my own and starting this business there was definitely a little glint of him in that. Even if it fails, who cares? If no-one comes to the seminars, whatever.”

Swimming and travelling

“I am a big fiction reader. My favourite book for a long time was Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I studied it an university and read it about five times.

“I like John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have moved a bit to non-fiction, reading The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, by Melinda Gates. American surgeon Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a fabulous book about death and dying, and why it should not be taboo.

“I have been looking for a book club for ages.

“I was a solo sportswoman - a good swimmer and played tennis as a kid. I’m an adult gym goer and tend to do yoga or go walking with girlfriends.

“I travelled a bit to Australia when I was younger – Dad was an airline pilot. At Burnside High School I did a classics tour to Greece and Italy in my final year and loved that.

“My husband and I did seven weeks across America, including Mississippi and Alabama.

“We went to Japan for three weeks with our son in a front pack. We are lean travellers and Japan was so easy for public transport. We had one backpack and one duffle bag, no pram, no car seat, none of that - for three weeks. It was a dream.”

The first lawyer in her family, Sarah was attracted by the language of law.

“I was always interested in stories. I knew without a doubt I was going to do English because I was an avid reader and loved it.

“Dad had a considered and quiet air about him. He would quite often show his hand on his opinion by asking direct questions. When he asked me about university and I said I was doing a BA in English he was chopping vegetables at the sink. He turned around and said ‘but what job are you going to do with that?’

“I did not want to be a teacher. I had an interest in journalism but I didn’t really see myself in it. Law seemed to me to be about stories, about people and advocacy is about language and using it effectively. That’s how I went about studying law.”

Bogan rock

“I am not musical. I am horribly unmusical. I failed high school attempts at the clarinet, guitar and violin. I love to listen to music, especially jazz and blues - Nina Simone and gospel singer Mavis Staples. I like James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. My husband hassles me about being a little bit bogan because I listen to pop music in the car.”

A keen film fan, Sarah plans to see about eight films at the New Zealand International Film Festival, which began in Christchurch this week.

“I like comedies and turn to movies for light relief as opposed to heavy documentaries. I like female comedians who have turned their hand to films, such as Rebel Wilson and Amy Fowler.

“We get a bit addicted to Netflix, and have been watching Queen of the South, about a cocaine empire in Mexico, The Black List, Suits, The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos. I loved Deadwood with Ian McShane and found myself quoting Deadwood lines in the most inappropriate places.

“I have plenty of dreams about likely holiday spots but anywhere with my husband and kids is a good spot.

“We have no pets - I think a pet in a house with a small male toddler would be terrorised - but when growing up we had a very regal British blue cat called Gus, who died a few years ago. He was a total and utter snob, with no time for us.

“I drive a black VW Golf, which we brought back from Australia. I am a fan of them. My first car was a 1980 Toyota Corolla, which my father bought for my brother and it got handed down to me. I drove it until it blew up in the carpark of the North Shore District Court.

“My Dad would be a dinner guest because he never met his grandchildren. He would cook Italian. He was a phenomenal cook. He would make a killer dessert - cheesecake or lemon meringue pie.

“Christopher Hitchens would be an interesting guest because I want to listen to him talk. His language and vocabulary and his ability to flatten an argument in a single sentence would leave me spellbound, whether I agreed with him or not.

“And maybe the notorious RBG – United States Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I would want to hear about her career and speak to her about women in law and what she thinks of today’s profession.

“The final guests would be some of the Hidden Figures - the women behind the NASA space programme. My drink of choice is a good big glass of red wine. And maybe some gin to start. I’m a bit of a gin connoisseur.

“The easy answer for an alternative career would be journalism, either in print or television. But I’m not particularly passionate about it. It would probably be something completely opposite like owning a fashion boutique or selling cool shoes. I have a large shoe collection. If it makes you happy, do it.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted atjockanderson123@gmail.com

Last updated on the 8th August 2019