Jessica Churchman spent her early years in West Yorkshire, England. But in 1999 her family, toured New Zealand as part of a year-long world tour. “We fell in love with New Zealand through the course of our travels and emigrated in 2004.”
The family settled in New Plymouth, where she attended New Plymouth Girls’ High.
After school, Jessica moved to Wellington to attend Victoria University where she completed a law degree, and a BA in Criminology and Classics.
“I completed uni in 2012, moved back to New Plymouth and was admitted in April 2012.”
Jessica, who is 27, is also a qualified teacher and taught for a period of time during a break between her legal work. She also juggles her work with being a mum to a one-year-old boy.
While still at school, Jessica attended the Waikato University Mooting Competition, Jessica’s team was mentored by Judge Harrop while he was a partner at a New Plymouth firm. She realised that law worked with her favourite activities, “I love to read, write and deal with people so it was a no-brainer.”
Jessica says she got the bug while clerking for a criminal barrister, which she did for three years in her spare time during her studies at Victoria. “I saw the good, bad and ugly side of the law and still enjoyed it.
“I wanted to make a difference. Law school is time-consuming and full of nuances. I wanted to see if any of it was actually relevant to practice and, quite simply, I wanted to see if I was any good.”
You started your legal career working in family and employment law and then you worked in civil litigation and commercial law. Do you have a favourite area?
“I think it would be a really tough call between relationship property and civil litigation if I had to pick an absolute favourite.
“I knew that I was a good family lawyer but I think you need a very thick skin to be involved in COCA and DV matters on a daily basis. Dealing with allegations of violence against children was definitely my least favourite.”
What do you enjoy most about being a lawyer?
“Getting great results for clients. I like the process of achieving resolutions and guiding clients through tricky situations.
“I enjoy litigation immensely, finding that every day offers a challenge and an opportunity to be better than I was the day before. I also like dealing with genuine, hard-working people.”
You had a break and taught for a little while. Were you able to transfer any of your teaching skills to your law work?
“Yes. I think teaching makes you incredibly organised. It also gives you the ability to rationalise, by breaking complicated things down into simple, easy to understand concepts.
“It’s made me methodical in my approach to time management and really broadened my ability to empathise and acknowledge the obstacles that need to be overcome before you can achieve a resolution.
“Teaching has enabled me to spot warning signs, interpret body language and negotiate with a wide and varied colleague and client base.”
Many young lawyers coming through are minimising as much of the ‘legal talk’ as possible when talking to their clients, a very different approach to those of the old guard. In your experience, how important do you think this change is?
“I love this approach. We find that clients respond incredibly well to a language they can actually understand.
“There’s nothing worse than feeling inferior on the basis of someone using fancy words that complicate things needlessly. If a doctor discussed ailments using Latin terminology, they wouldn’t last five minutes in practice.”
Jessica says plain language minimises misunderstandings, increases client satisfaction and removes barriers to free and open communication between lawyer and client.
“I think this change is really important for practice. This profession requires that you can build a relationship of trust and confidence with clients, and minimising legalese that could be construed as ‘talking down’ to clients, or making them feel inferior is really critical in building trust.”
Is there anything you wish you learned in law school that wasn’t covered?
“The main thing I think needs a bit more focus is on legal research and writing. I think this was a half-semester mandatory paper which involved a few exercises and a pass/fail grade.
“I think the best thing universities could do to prepare law students to be lawyers is to push legal research, such as the use of Westlaw, as a skill which students should be fluent in upon graduating. I also think that, at the very least, law students should be able to find, access and prepare legal documents using standard Westlaw templates.”
This is for the purposes of practical usage.
“There’s nothing worse than having to rely on documents prepared by lawyers who once had your job as a template. Being able to prepare accurate and concise documents from scratch is a real skill which should be honed prior to applying for jobs.”
After finishing your studies, did you find the job matched the expectations you had at university?
“While baptism of fire is probably too strong a phrase, practising law as a new graduate was certainly an opportunity to sink or swim. From talking to friends who graduated at the same time as I did, it’s clear that there’s a discrepancy between smaller and larger firms about training vs practice.
“In the first week of my first job out of uni, I appeared at a judicial conference in the Family Court. Friends of mine didn’t come close to a court until they’d been employed for several months. I wouldn’t have changed my experience but it was a lot more ‘hands on’ than I was expecting when I graduated. Overall, the law is what I was expecting – with a few more late nights.”
Are there any issues currently facing young lawyers and/or the legal system as a whole that you would like to highlight?
“I don’t envy students studying law at the moment. There is fierce competition for those first few roles, particularly if you are wanting to return, or move to the provinces where there aren’t a lot of graduate jobs available.”
To remedy this, Jessica believes the biggest thing law students and graduates can do is to set themselves apart from others, and that practical experience is important.
“I volunteered for three years, but I also walked into the first graduate job I interviewed for. Patching the holes in your practical knowledge before applying for jobs is definitely a good place to start.
“As far as legal system issues, there has been really interesting family trust decisions made by the courts, who seem to be approaching them from a ‘social justice’ perspective as far as relationship property goes. I’ll be interested to see the flow-on effects to practice.”
Who inspires you?
Jessica names Claudia King, the director of Dennis King Law. “…[Claudia] has opened a whole new world with respect to our online brand Legal Beagle.
“It’s been really great to watch the transformation of the business. She’s also leading the charge on document automation which is going to revolutionise the traditional practice of law and other industries for those who want to utilise this amazing technology.”
What are your favourite books/musicians/movies? And your ways of disengaging from the job?
“I have recently binge-watched Game of Thrones, and I love to read anything by Ken Follett [an author of thriller and historical novels].
“I’m also reading a few more grown-up books about business success and female entrepreneurship. That is when I can snatch any time around working and being a mum to a one-year-old.”