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From dinosaurs in China to the law in Auckland

24 June 2020 - By Angharad O’Flynn

As a child, Daisy Zhang didn’t want to be a lawyer, she wanted to be a tour guide.

Growing up in the city of Zigong, in China’s Sichuan province, Daisy would visit the city's natural history museums, where visitors can see fossils and examine the terrain dinosaurs roamed around millions of years ago. All of which encouraged Daisy’s passion for education-tourism. But, when her parents’ government work introduced her to the legal industry through their government work, that all changed.

Daisy Zhang

In her early 20s Daisy spent time backpacking across China and Asia, after which she enrolled in law school. After graduating, she pursued legal careers working as a judge’s assistant in Zigong and at law firm in Shanghai.

Applying her adventurous spirit Daisy has opened her own law firm in Auckland, Hansheng Law.

What is it like working as a judge’s assistant in an intermediate court?

“The Intermediate Court in China is the court hearing appeals from the district court and its judgment is the final say,” says Daisy who graduated in China in 2006 and was admitted in New Zealand in 2016.

“As a judge’s assistant, the position is like a mixture of admin and legal work. I undertook various tasks including drafting the first version of the judgment, conducting legal research, assisting judges during the hearing such as keeping minutes. Because there is legislation regarding deadlines, the work sometimes becomes stressful if there is a high volume of cases.

“New Zealand lawyers would be surprised to know that you do not need to be a lawyer first before you become a judge. All lawyers, judges and prosecutors need to pass the bar exam and then if you want to be a judge, you need to sit another exam to work in the court as a judge’s assistant to start with then, after a certain amount of time years, become a judge when the position is available. I think the reason is China is not a case law jurisdiction and the court has it is own training system including the National Judge’s College.”

Which firm did you work at in China?

“I worked for Hansheng Law office in Shanghai. It’s a large, diversified firm with almost all practice areas from intellectual property to litigation. I worked under a founding partner’s team specialising in acquisitions, structuring and corporate risk control.”

How did you find studying in New Zealand vs study in China?

“I think studying law in NZ is more fun as some judgments are like art, they are so beautiful I really enjoy reading them. Because China is a civil law system, legislation and its regulations play a much more important role in the legal system rather than judgments, so the judgments are less interesting to read.

“In China, for LLB law students, there is no open book exam, we have to memorise all important laws and apply them in the exam. That is why I was super happy when I noticed it was an open book exam in NZ law school. But later I found out it was not as easy as I thought because I needed to understand the topic thoroughly.

“For an LLM degree it is more like New Zealand law school; we choose a specific area which we are interested in and do research and write an essay. I think law school equipped me with critical thinking and to think open mindedly.  Chinese law schools train students to look at the case as an entire picture, and approach problems in a consistent and logical way.

“I am so proud that I was ranked third in my hometown, Zigong, among roughly 200 candidates who passed the bar exam when I was just 22 years old.

“Another thing I really love about the New Zealand admission ceremony. I think it was so cool wearing the wig and listening to the judge. I felt my four and half years of hard work had paid off. In China we do not have such an official ceremony. I was informed by the Justice Bureau to pick up the hard copy of my certificate and the officer smiled to me ‘congratulations’.

“I quite like NZ natural environment and legal environment - it is very friendly to junior lawyers compared with China.”

Why did you choose to go into business, family and property law?

“I am interested in business law. When I studied LLM in Jinan University, my major was civil and commercial law, because I think it is practical and useful. Almost all the selective papers at AUT I have chosen are business law papers.

“I like property development clients, we have established trust and understanding gradually more and more in a long-term cooperation. Some clients become friends and they are happy to share their experience and pitfalls which are very valuable to me too.

“Trust is a great vehicle to protect assets and more and more clients are considering it, but recently I persuaded my clients to wait as new trust law is coming into force soon.

“I also have an interest in family law. Normally when facing a failing relationship some clients are emotional. For a family law client, I pay extra attention to communication. I know they do not just need a lawyer with legal acknowledge but they need some support to make them less worried during difficult times.”

Did working in the legal profession match the expectations you had in university?

“Yes. Better than I thought.

“Regardless of being in China or New Zealand, working in a firm or court, all my supervisors are nice, willing to help and provide extensive training. I love practising law and I love dealing with clients and assisting them. Even if we lawyers do not earn as much money as some businesspeople, we are professionals and people respect us.

“As a young lawyer, with English as my second language, being able to open my own firm after just three years practice, I feel lucky and grateful.”

Are there any issues currently facing the legal profession that you think need to be addressed?

“I hope the New Zealand Law Society website highlights its Mentoring Programme and National Friends Panel. Some young lawyers do not receive enough training from their supervisors and the Law Society has great resources that could help young lawyers, but not everyone knows about them.

“From my first year practising in New Zealand I started to build up my own clients. I attribute this to the high demand for lawyers and my bilingual skills, as I mostly serve Chinese clients.

“As China is not a case law country, people who do not want to pay legal fees for small disputes simply search legislation online or access a free lawyer consultation. You also don't need a lawyer to conduct conveyancing, so entry level Chinese lawyers, especially those who work in small or medium sized local firms, do not have enough cases as they are unable to handle more complicated ones.  As a result of low demand for junior Chinese lawyers, their income is normally underpaid, and during the toughest years in their professional life.”

How do you unwind after a long day at the office?

“Work/life balance is very important to me; I never allow myself to be too tired.

“I feel happy after a day’s work, not stressed. Now that I have started my own firm, time is more flexible and I do not need to do nine-to-five.

“On weekdays after dinner my son Finlay occupies most of my spare time. On the weekend, I hang out with friends for dinner, watch movies, go to karaoke in the city, go hiking or go to a hot spring pool.”

How have you found working during the COVID-19 lockdown?

“I video-called with clients who I met before and I have refused to take new client’s work as I am not confident even with Law Society’s temporary new rules regarding witness A&I.

“My first few days were super busy and I really wanted to go back into the office. However, after one week, I got used to it and I started to enjoy staying at home.

“During the lockdown it seems lawyers became nicer as everyone was calling each other and presented more appreciation and empathy.  But to be honest, I much prefer face-to-face meetings with clients, because after providing the legal service, I enjoy chatting with clients. I feel video-calling is purely for business, I would not want to chat more to a screen.”

What has been the best advice you have received?

“For life is ‘follow your heart’.

“I am a very adventurous person in life and have a ‘go go go’ attitude. Once I feel I want to do something, I quickly plan and just do it without thinking too much.  For the legal profession, I was advised the first day I was a lawyer is ‘be in awe of law’, to never do anything to breach the law or ethics, and only follow the rules then we can practise longer and safer.”

Angharad O’Flynn is a Wellington-based journalist. She writes primarily about new lawyers and if you or a colleague wishes to be profiled, please contact her at a.oflynn@icloud.com.

Last updated on the 24th June 2020