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How and why some lawyers morph into politicians

03 November 2016 - By Nick Butcher

If you take a closer look at the education jackets of politicians currently working on policy in the Beehive, you’ll find many of them actually started out as lawyers.

Some might say it’s a practical marriage of social ideals because politicians create legislation and barristers and solicitors speak the language of the law.

So what drives a lawyer into political life and is it really a good fit?

Metiria Turei
Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei

“It was the legal advocacy background that drove me to the law, not the desire for a large pay cheque,” says Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei.

Ms Turei is one of the politicians in Parliament with an LLB.

“My foray into law actually came through being involved in activist politics in the 1980s. I was even arrested once. It was very much about challenging the dominant paradigm. People who had power and their use of that power over people who didn’t have any,” she says.

After becoming a single mum at 22, Ms Turei decided she needed to find a career that could set her up to care for her daughter.

“By the time I’d applied for law school, I’d already engaged with the law a lot. I’d been to select committee hearings and presented submissions. I’d been at protests and challenged laws themselves. I’d analysed various laws and had written about them.”

Training incentive allowance was the pathway to law school

Using a training incentive allowance, she put herself through law school, graduating in 1999 from Auckland University and going on to work as a commercial lawyer at Simpson Grierson.

“I was there for over three years and really loved it as I learned so much. At the beginning of my law degree I had intended to go into policy work. By the end of it I was keen on court work in criminal and family because those were the people that I had been dealing with during my activist years.”

Having spent a lot of time interpreting law, she says the opportunity to make law appeared to be the next professional step in a legal career.

“Politics is about advocacy and hopefully having a bigger sense of taking responsibility for the well-being of the whole country. I think some lawyers come into politics because of the ability to change things, you know – move society forward in a better way and therefore use those legal skills to achieve that by the making of good laws.

“It can get a bit depressing sometimes when you realise there is a lack of rigour in some of the policy development. There’s often little raw analysis of the actual details and effect of the law yet that’s what the select committee process is supposed to be about. But it can seem more about politics than law sometimes,” she said.

Two kinds of lawyers in politics?

Ms Turei questions whether some lawyers enter politics simply for the power trip.

“Is there a split between those lawyers with advocacy backgrounds who get into politics to help create better legislation and those lawyers that are there because being a lawyer gives you a status and allows you to win a seat or gain popularity or a higher position within an organisation?” she asks.

Stephen Franks started out as a lawyer, then went into politics with the ACT Party before returning to practising law.

Mr Franks was admitted 40 years ago after studying at Victoria University.

“For about two years, I did what was considered back then a pretty common apprenticeship in my first job as a lawyer. I did estate work, conveyancing and court work. That’s what you had to cut your teeth on back in those days,” he says.

Living and working on a commune in China

Stephen Franks
Former Act Party MP, Stephen Franks

Once Mr Franks (who was on the left during his student politics days) had gained some general experience as a lawyer, it was off to China with plans to live and work on a commune.

But Mr Franks and his travelling friends arrived in China in 1976 during a tense period of political unrest.

It was the days of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ – a quartet of political and economic radicals who had emerged as powerbrokers during the Cultural Revolution in China.

“The atmosphere was frightening and uncertain. As foreigners we were told to stay in our hotel rooms. I’m not sure what would have happened if we had left the hotel,” he says.

What transpired is that for Mr Franks and his friends to stay in China, they had to assume identities that China considered friendly to the nation, as recommended by their hosts at the commune they wanted to live at.

“We then spent the next few months masquerading as Albanians. In those days what restrictions were put on you and how much you could move about was determined by how fraternal your birth country was with China,” he says.

After seven weeks in China, Mr Franks then spent a month living in the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) before eventually arriving in the less hostile Sweden.

Losing his left-wing convictions

“I arrived in Sweden for summer work and stayed with three students who thought they were Maoists and I realised I’d lost my left wing convictions and had become cynical and apolitical because there wasn’t very much about life behind the iron curtain in either China or Russia during the 70s that was very attractive. Everyday people in both China and Russia seemed quite terrified,” he says.

After about two years overseas, Mr Franks arrived back in Wellington and worked in the Office of the Ombudsman, still unaware that his future would be political.

“It’s a painless way to understand how Government systems work. You get to investigate a lot of files and I was working for Sir George Laking who was the Chief Ombudsman at the time and he really got things done,” he says.

Before he entered politics, Mr Franks practised as a lawyer for Chapman Tripp, working on legislative projects and worked with the Labour Party’s Roger Douglas after he lost office.

The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers was founded by Mr Douglas and Derek Quigley in 1993.

Over the next two years it grew into a political party known as ACT but it wasn’t until 1996 that Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble came knocking on his door as a possible candidate for the upcoming general elections under MMP.

“I wasn’t even a member of the ACT Party. I told them I hadn’t thought about politics and my wife – who was a parliamentary journalist at the time – didn’t think I’d be into it, saying I’d be too undiplomatic.

“But I started listening to radio and interviews and thought, I could do better than that, so when Roger phoned me back I said I don’t want to waste your time. Either put me at the bottom of the list or somewhere near the top,” he says.

To Mr Frank’s surprise, he was placed at number three on the ACT Party list.

“My wife was quite angry about this, as she thought it would rebound on our four children who were at school and that it wasn’t what she signed up for, but I think a lot of spouses find it difficult being married to a politician although it is easier if you live in Wellington,” he says.

Political life can be lonely

“It’s a very lonely life in many ways. Politics attracts a lot of ‘odd egos’ and often people who are working out their personal demons in public.

“There’s friends I made still in politics and people I still respect a lot more than I ever expected to but you don’t really ever fully trust anyone. There’s a few friendships where you know that you’ve got each other’s back but mostly politics is filled with people who don’t bond strongly. I left because the public sacked me. I lost my seat in the 2005 general election,” he says.

At a glance there are many politicians with law degrees from the past and the present. The late David Lange was a lawyer, Andrew Little was a lawyer, so was Amy Adams and Simon Bridges. David Parker was a lawyer. Winston Peters was too … the list goes on.

President Barack Obama was a lawyer and, believe it or not, President Vladimir Putin also has a law degree.

But Mr Franks says very few of the current crop of politicians have been what he refers to as “real lawyers”.

“Amy Adams was, Winston was for a while but just because you do a law degree, that doesn’t make you a lawyer. Many of the current crop of politicians haven’t done much else except politics. I think that’s a real shame. People shouldn’t go into politics until they’ve done at least 20 years of something else,” he says.

If anything we're a bit short of lawyers

David Parker
Labour Party MP & Shadow
Attorney-General, David Parker

The Labour Party’s David Parker was a practising lawyer, having been admitted in 1981 before the call of politics hooked him.

Mr Parker is the environment spokesperson and shadow Attorney-General.

“There’s fewer lawyers in Parliament these days than there used to be and if anything we are actually a bit short of lawyers,” he says.

Before political life began as an elected MP in 2002, David Parker was a partner at law firm Anderson Lloyd, after starting off as a Resource Management Act lawyer and then a civil litigator.

“I became sick of civil litigation because I didn’t think the fees being charged justified the scope of the work and when I stop enjoying doing something, I do something different.

“I have a social conscience and, with the help of other lawyers, we set up the Dunedin Community Law Centre,” he says.

At one point in his career, about 23 years ago, Mr Parker says he was practically broke.

“It was the most stressful and difficult period of my life. I was cleaned out financially. You have feelings of shame. It was terrible and I’m certainly more accepting of people’s frailties than I was in the past,” he says.

However things turned around and after working full-time for a lawyer for a couple of years he went into business with the late Howard Patterson, a multi-millionaire Dunedin businessman.

“I was also a member of the Labour Party and what caused me to become active as opposed to being just a member was changes that were being made in the electricity market.

“As a person from Otago, I was aware of the effect that energy had on the region, with dams on the Waitaki and Clutha rivers and other significant rivers. At the time there were changes being made to energy policy which I thought were wrong. That caused me to get active with Pete Hodgson (senior Cabinet Minister within the New Zealand Government from 1999 to 2008) in the Dunedin North electorate.

“One thing led to another and I stood for the Otago seat, not expecting to win as it was a safe National seat, held by Gavin Herlihy. It was a surprise to a few people and I had to give up my day job,” he says.

It’s not unsurprising that Mr Parker entered politics because there was regularly a political flavour around the dinner table growing up.

“My mother was active in the woman’s movement and the Abortion Law Reform Association and Homosexual Law Reform. The Vietnam War was just about over as I was growing up but it was on the news every night.

“The Springbok tour and apartheid issues were very raw when I was at university. It was a lot more political when I was there with protest marches. We were demonstrating about what we thought was inadequate training for the practice of law as opposed to the theory of law.”

Mr Parker studied law at a time when the late Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon was at his peak.

Biggest loss in court a major driver for a political career

“My best loss in court was representing a real estate agent on criminal charges of being party to a breach of the Rent Freeze Regulations. I spent weeks on submissions and lost the case but it was another formative part of how I got into politics,” he says.

Practising as a lawyer and working on Water Conservation Orders after being trained by the late Jim Guthrie were also drivers towards politics.

And there were the Children of the Poor books by John A Lee, of which many were based in Dunedin.

“There’s this wonderful Scottish ancestry there that believed in the education of people being the source of opportunity but it also believed in thrift, hard work and fair outcomes, and we’ve lost that in New Zealand with so much wealth being accumulated by the top few percent. We’ve lost social mobility in a way that makes us all poorer in my opinion,” he says.

Before Mr Parker turned to politics, his legal and business career was lucrative, and he says he was creaming it but making buckets of money isn’t a driving force in his life.

That’s because he also knows what it feels like to fall on hard financial times, having done so over two decades ago, and that’s something he has not forgotten.

“I understand human frailties and can have more influence here in politics than in any other field and I still earn a decent living,” he says.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer
Former Prime Minister,
Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC 

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC needs no introduction. He has been a lawyer for over half a century, as he was admitted in 1966. Sir Geoffrey is also a Law Professor and still teaches law students.

He entered the colourful world of politics as the MP for Christchurch Central in 1979. In Parliament he held the offices of the Labour Government’s Attorney-General, Minister of Justice, and Leader of the House, Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister. He left politics in 1990, but during his decade he crafted many pieces of legislation including the Resource Management Act, the Bill of Rights Act, the Constitution Act, and he established the Law Commission.

Sir Geoffrey’s work as a law professor began in both New Zealand and the United States of America long before his political career got off the ground.

“That background in constitutional law really makes you very interested in how the law is made and what the difference between good law and bad law is.

“I also worked on the Woodhouse report (which later recommended the ACC system be established) in the late 1960s and was involved in writing the government white paper on that. I also worked on the same inquiry in Australia – when Sir Owen Woodhouse was asked to go there. That experience gave me an enormous insight into the policy and law making process.”

Sir Geoffrey says while being an advisor is nice, it is better to be able to make the decisions.

“I felt that those were the forces that impelled me to go into politics because if you want to change things there is really no other way of doing it. Judges and lawyers in their normal life of acting for clients get involved in disputes about how the law applies but they don’t get to make the law.

Does Sir Geoffrey agree with Stephen Franks in that lawyers should get solid practising experience before entering politics?

“Getting a law degree is one thing but having the knowledge on the application of it in real life is another thing.

“One of the difficulties that law students who become lawyers have to face is that they go through a long period of education and then they get into a law office and they go through a long period of training again. It takes time to pick up and really get immersed in law,” Sir Geoffrey says.

And let’s not forget, there are over 65,000 pages of statute law in New Zealand.

“It would be very difficult to know all of the law that we have. It all depends on the issue you have in Parliament as to whether the practical experience you’ve had will be valuable,” he says.

Sir Geoffrey says there appears to be a natural synergy between lawyers and Parliament.

“And people who are exposed to law in their daily work do know whether something will work or whether it won’t and what the practical fishhooks might be.

“When I was first in Parliament, I sat on the Statutes Revision Committee which really consisted of in those days a whole lot of National Party farmers and a whole lot of Labour Party lawyers. We had wonderful debates in those days and if the National Party farmers thought we had a point, they would go back to their caucus and we could get the bill changed.

“Those committees were very important in trying to work out the legislation that would actually work, and that’s a very important feature of the legislative process and quite often the public servants who work on these matters are not directly involved in them and they haven’t worked quite often in the private sector and you do get a different perspective if you’ve had exposure to all of that. I do think the Parliament that makes the final decisions on what the law should be and how it should be drafted, those are very important matters because they are the things that drive the decision-making,” he says.

Sir Geoffrey says that legal training is very helpful but points out it is a house of representatives.

“You have to have representation from all sectors of the community and you don’t want to have it dominated by lawyers because lawyers have certain weaknesses when it comes to these matters as well. To a large extent law is a backward looking profession because it’s based on precedent, judicial decisions and firm analytical reasoning,” he says.

Sir Geoffrey says in politics there’s a lot of passion and emotion and you don’t want what he describes as “rule by lawyers”.

Looking back at his long career, Sir Geoffrey Palmer says in his own words, it is about having interesting things to do.

“You don’t want to go to work feeling like there’s nothing much to do. I still teach at Victoria University and I derive enormous satisfaction out of that. I’m teaching a course on climate change and the law. I’m teaching another one on legislative design and I work as a barrister dealing with a lot of environmental issues and I’ve just written a book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand with Dr Andrew Butler who’s a partner with Russell McVeagh.

“The law can be a constructive force for good and the legal profession has an obligation to ensure that is the case.

“One of the things about living in a democracy is that we have a fairly good system of rule of law and it brings with it many blessings. You only have to look at what is going on in the Middle East to see what the absence of peace, order and good government does to a country,” he says.

Amy Adams
Minister of Justice, Amy Adams 

The Justice Minister, Amy Adams, studied law at Canterbury University, graduating with first class honours in 1992.

After specialising in commercial and property law and making partner with Mortlock McCormack Law in Christchurch, Ms Adams was elected to Parliament in 2008.

Ms Adams knew from a very young age what she wanted to do for a career.

“I had decided very early as a child that I was going to be a lawyer. In hindsight I had no clue what that actually meant. It was something that fed into my young brain.

“I carried on down that path and obviously law school is very different to what you think it is going to be like and then there’s practising law. There’s a lot of relearning your expectations as to what being a lawyer will mean.

“I enjoyed my time as a lawyer but at the same time I didn’t find it to be something I felt really passionate about, and made me want to get up in the morning and that I could see myself doing for the next 30 years,” she says.

Ms Adams is a goal oriented person. She made partner at 32.

“So at that point, I was asking myself, what do I want to do next? I was also feeling frustrated by having to tell people who would ask about legal matters, oh that’s just the way the system is or that’s how the law works.”

Questioning why some laws worked the way they did led to political life

Ms Adams began questioning why various laws worked the way they did and set her sights on politics.

“Those thoughts were percolating in my brain,” she says.

Ms Adams also started traveling between Christchurch and Wellington, presenting submissions at select committee meetings on behalf of a client and she began to get a feel for politics.

“I was meeting with ministers, conveying viewpoints and the more I spent time in Wellington, the more I realised this is where you can get involved in these decisions. I felt I could make a contribution and that it would be far more meaningful for me,” she says.

Politics a gamble with no political experience

And stepping into politics was a gamble, as Ms Adams did not come from a family with strong political views nor had she studied political science.

“I hadn’t been involved in student politics. I didn’t have a great dynasty of people to fall back on. It was very much a leap into the unknown. I didn’t have any great expectations that I would be successful but I decided that if I at least didn’t try, I would always kick myself and wonder what might have been,” she says.

Ms Adams says politics is a peculiar beast in that some people come into it and make it their lifelong career, such as spending 30 years in the game.

“My view is that it’s a role that takes an immense amount out of you and it gives an immense amount back to you as long as you have that passion and that drive and willingness to do it.

“I plan to be here as long as I can keep the level of enthusiasm and energy up and continue to do things that matter,” she says.

Ms Adams describes it as an “incredible privilege” being able identify a law that isn’t working well enough and then be able to do something about that.

Obviously the Minister doesn’t get to change the law on her own, as there is a parliamentary process, but she does get to put a major dose of input into new laws for the justice sector.

“There’s been areas where the idea was mine, the drive came from me and I had to get other people on board, and sometimes it doesn’t work but when you do see a law change for the good, it makes up for the incredibly long hours.

“Obviously having been a partner in a law firm was very financially rewarding, and you give up a lot of that being in politics. But for instance the work I’ve done on family violence law reform makes me so proud because I know it will make a difference in the long term,” she says.

“Those reforms are not a silver bullet but they will keep more women, children and victims safe and there is nothing more personally rewarding than to know I’ve been a part of that.”

Ms Adams says that when she is eventually swinging back and forth in her rocking chair in her 80s, it is those changes she will think about.

“Those are the things I’ll look back with satisfaction on, not to diminish the work that lawyers do in any way but I don’t know if I’d look back on my practising career and say I did something that makes a real difference to this country.”

Ms Adams says her legal training plays a massive role in why she is able to do the job she does now.

“You’d never want a cabinet or parliament that is all lawyers. My colleagues would grimace at the thought but you do need some because at the end of the day, we are making legislation and we understand better than those that aren’t legally trained how critical words are and the particular choice of words being used matters immeasurably,” she says.

Ms Adams says being in politics also gives her the opportunity to be a role model to young women.

“I didn’t come from a particularly special background or go to the flash schools and I hope I can be an influence to young women.

“It’s a little shocking to me how few women put themselves forward for senior leadership roles. I’m a great believer that for every woman that does then it makes it easier for the next woman who wants to get into leadership job. It is just as true in the legal profession as it is in politics,” she says.

Last updated on the 3rd November 2016