Playing as a toddler with stationery items under her lawyer uncle’s desk may have been an odd way to begin a legal career, but that’s how Khushbu Sundarji’s mother tells it.
“My Mum’s story was that when I was about four or five they needed to see my uncle, who is a lawyer, and they couldn’t find a babysitter so they brought me in.
“I went to his office, grabbed his hole punch and a stapler, crawled under his desk and started playing with them. I asked later what he did and they said he is a lawyer, so I said I want to be a lawyer.
- Khushbu Sundarji
- Suva, Fiji
- Entry to law
- Graduated BA, LLB from Auckland University in 2010. Admitted in New Zealand in 2010 and Melbourne in 2011.
- Associate at Stewart Germann Law, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- Commercial, franchising and licensing.
“The older I got the more I realised I liked the idea. I like the idea of helping and meeting people. I don’t know if I would have met the range of people I have over the years if I had been an accountant. The whole point for us as lawyers is to help.”
Khushbu, who was recently appointed an associate at Stewart Germann Law, worked in Auckland and Melbourne before returning to New Zealand.
In Melbourne, she worked for two years on contract jobs, after initially working for a family member who needed help in the office. “In return I could ask anything I wanted about Victorian law, and I took full advantage of that.”
“I lived in the city and he worked in Carlton North, an easy 25-minute tram ride. I was very lucky, I was a runaround person and I asked him all about conveyancing, leases, everything. Luckily for me, apart from conveyancing at that time, everything was the same as New Zealand so it worked out well.”
After that Khushbu worked for a Melbourne city firm, working on leases for commercial landlords, before shifting to RNG Lawyers for something completely different - wills and estates.
“That was very different and a learning curve in the best way. I also obtained probates in Victoria, which was a lot easier, but a lot of paperwork. And then I moved to the litigation team. There is a real vibe in Melbourne, anything can happen and it energises you every morning.
“I wanted to work in Melbourne to experience it and I was satisfied with my experience. I felt I grew a lot. I moved out of home to live in an apartment by myself which, in retrospect, I probably wouldn’t do again. That was a huge learning curve.”
After her Melbourne contract ended and she found it difficult to find another job, Khushbu took it as a sign to return home.
“It was time to come back to New Zealand, use the experience I had and see where I could go from there. I also missed my family; all my family was here, it was only me that left.”
Khushbu’s Dad Nribhay and Mum Asha have run an accounting and financial services practice in Auckland’s Mt Eden, since they came to New Zealand in the 1990s. She has an older brother.
“I used to be the person acting as the secretary at times when I didn’t have a job, so I am used to working in a small firm and doing the things that some people are not used to – making coffees, cleaning up, so for me it’s not a big deal.”
An uncle is a senior associate in a Brisbane law firm. “He was a pharmacist for a long time and always wanted to do law, so he moved to Brisbane a few years ago and studied law. At one point he and his eldest son - my cousin - and I were all studying law at the same time, in different places.”
“I have a habit of finding random recipes and trying them out. I’m not naturally a cook, unlike my mother who is someone who can eat something and right away go ‘I can taste the ginger’. She is used to it because she’s been cooking since she was eight, and often for eight to 10 people.
“I will try my luck and hope it tastes all right. I enjoy baking and the chemistry of it - that flour and chocolate turns into this amazing cake. Chocolate cake is my favourite. And I make good chocolate and peanut butter cookies and brownies, so I’m getting there. Everyone loves chocolate.
“Like every other Kiwi girl I played netball up until intermediate but I’m not really a sports person.”
But on a random holiday to Canada, Khushbu visited Vancouver and fell in love with ice hockey. “My team is the Vancouver Canucks and I watch them online when I can.
“I have family there and also a friend living in Montreal. I went in winter because I had an idea of a white Christmas. I got to Montreal and found out the hard way that a white Christmas is very pretty to look at, but very hard to walk around in and very cold – one day it was minus 25 degrees. I like winter in New Zealand better.”
After noticing while her grandmother was in care after a bad car accident that some people did not get many visitors, Khushbu is keen to visit and chat to people in care homes. “Once I get a bit more free time I would like to go in and help or just say Hi. Loneliness is a huge thing that happens. And people have interesting stories to tell.
“My BA is in Spanish and Italian, and apparently there’s a study that says if you do languages you can play an instrument. I proved that wrong completely. I am not musical in any way, shape or form.
“I enjoy listening to popular music - U2 and Coldplay are my favourite bands and I have seen both in concert here.”
Reading about people she doesn’t know
“I am a bookworm – I have always loved reading.
“There are only a couple of books I have not been able to finish, one being The Shipping News, which even to this day is so dense. I tried so hard. I also could not watch the film either, it was a concept beyond me.
“I like American writers Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve, and British writer Alexander McCall Smith. And I like autobiographies, especially reading about people I don’t know.
“One of the best autobiographies I’ve read is Andre Agassi’s Open. I read it because I couldn’t find anything else in the library. I had never read a sports biography and was a bit of a snob in that sense - why do I want to hear about a sports star?
“But his book was amazing and showed the drive you need and it gave me a lot more appreciation of professional sportspeople.
“Others include Red Hot Chili Peppers vocalist Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue, and (former) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s eye-opening story of coaching.”
Khushbu went to India for the first time in 1999/2000 with her family.
“It was very eye-opening. I was warned it was a different place. I don’t think I ate for a couple of days other than cereal we brought from home. It’s the shock of the place. You can’t change it, you go with it the way it is and accept India’s rhythm.
“The second time was for a wedding in 2008 and we saw a lot more family.” Her parent’s families are from villages in the Western India state of Gujarat.
In New Zealand more recently she visited the South Island for the first time and fell in love with Queenstown. “It is magical. Can you imagine waking up each day and seeing those mountains? I plan to go back to Queenstown and explore more of the South Island – that’s a goal.
“I want to explore little random places. Once a month my partner, a trust account administrator, and I pick a random place and explore.
“I drive a blue/grey 2001 VW Golf, which I love to bits.
“Ellen DeGeneres would be my first choice of dinner guest. She’s someone who at the height of her fame decided to be true to herself and come out and lost everything, then came back stronger. I would love to pick her brains on how she did it, how did she have the strength?
“And Indian romantic comic actress Juhi Chawla [A former Miss India and now cricket team part-owner]. I loved her when I was a little girl. I want to know how she found Bollywood during that time because it changed so drastically.
“And the Obamas, on how they observe the divisiveness in America. There would be a simple meal of pasta, garlic bread and salad. A good merlot or rosé in summer, and a beer for President Obama.”
Baptism of fire
Khushbu’s most memorable moment was a terrifying baptism of fire – her first property settlement in her first job, which was for a family member.
What she expected to be a straightforward exercise involved a trust, three multiple signatory caveats on the property, documents going back and forth to India, wrong names, numerous delays on deadline, a removal truck ready to go and plenty of tears.
“I was working for Peter Small, at The Small Law Firm, in Auckland, and he kept assuring me everything was done correctly and it would work out – which it did at the last minute. I was in tears.
“I’ve never thought of being anything else but a lawyer. Maybe a counsellor of sorts - helping people with issues. In an alternative life I would like to do something like that.
“I would like to make partner and be a mentor to help other lawyers. There were times earlier when I was a bit lost because it is such a change from law school.
“I wouldn’t want people to struggle and would want them to know there is always help available. Nothing is worse than being miserable at work.
“It is easier in a smaller law firm because there is just a handful of people. You always know what’s happening and someone is always there to help. I have been very lucky with that.
“And Stewart Germann is someone always open to giving help, so it worked out well that I got a chance to learn franchising from one of the best people I can learn from.”
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 at email@example.com