New Zealand Law Society - Kerrie Heaysman: Celebrating 50 years of practising law

Kerrie Heaysman: Celebrating 50 years of practising law

Kerrie Heaysman: Celebrating 50 years of practising law

The article was originally published in Family Advocate, Volume 24 Issue I (Spring 2022).

Kerrie Heaysman has recently achieved 50 years of practising law. We spoke to her about her experiences.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the United Kingdom on 18 March 1950. My family immigrated to New Zealand in 1952 and settled in Christchurch.

Where did you go to school?

I attended St Mark’s Anglican Church School in Christchurch from 1955 until 1962 and then to Burnside High School in Christchurch until 1967. I was 16 when I started at Canterbury University in 1967. I completed my law degree at Canterbury University in 1971 and was admitted to the Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor in 1972.

Why did you want to be a lawyer?

I did not want to stay at school. My father suggested I could either work in a shop or go to university. I decided to go to university and practise law.

The reason for wanting to be a lawyer was because I liked watching Perry Mason on TV and thought that being a crime solving lawyer would be interesting. No one in our family had studied law. My father was a builder.

My father wanted my sister and I to be independent, and not be forced to stay in bad relationships. He believed in equal pay and education for women. My sister obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree and I myself an LLB.

I did not realise I would be entering into a world that did not always share my father’s views.

What was law school like?

There were only five female students out of approximately 100 male students in my class at Canterbury University. I was fortunate to complete my studies at the old University Buildings, which are now the Art Centre.

One male student expressed surprise I had attended a state co-educational school and was female, but my classmates were very supportive and I still attend “the class of 71” reunions.

How was it when you first practised?

When I attended my first job interview in Christchurch, one of the partners advised there had never been a female applicant, and the partners were concerned I might get pregnant. I told him that I did not know if I could get pregnant. I was offered employment at that firm.

When I was Junior Counsel in a jury trial, the Judge asked to see Counsel over lunch break. I was very nervous. At the lunch, the Judge asked why I had chosen law as a profession, as it was unusual for a woman to be a lawyer.

Some male practitioners were quite unpleasant and found difficulty in dealing with a female practitioner. I also found that female secretaries also found it difficult to deal with a female lawyer.

There was a serious pay inequality when I started my legal career. Law did not travel well.

In Australia (where I was working and admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in 1974) I was paid the same as first year graduate despite the fact I had practised for 2 years in New Zealand.

The same happened when I was working in the United Kingdom. I mentioned to my employer about the poor pay for women compared to my male colleagues. I was told I should not complain as this was just pin money for me as I had a husband.

What have been some of the biggest changes from when you started?

There are now many women practising law.

We did not have computers or Google when I started, so that has been a big change.

The pay gap has lessened.

I used to wear a wig and gown in the Family Court. Divorces were held in the High Court.

When I started working in family law, the issues were domestic violence, gambling and drink. Now drugs are a serious issue together with the other problems.

There have been many changes to legal aid. Lawyers used to get paid for the work that was completed, and now with the fixed fees it is not the case. The result has been clients who should have representation they need, are unable to do so due to lawyers not wishing to offer legal aid in their practice, or some of those who obtain legal aid are unable to access experienced practitioners.

There has been a positive change in recognising cultural diversity.

What areas have you practised in during your career?

In New Zealand I have practised family law, civil litigation, employment law, ACC and some criminal work, together with general practice. In 2002 I was appointed as Lawyer for Child.

In Australia, my work was mostly family and criminal work.

In the United Kingdom, where I was admitted as a Solicitor in 1980 I worked for two firms specializing in personal injury litigation.

What have been some of the best parts of your career?

The best part has been practising as Lawyer for Child and the privilege of acting in the welfare and best interest of children.

I was admitted to the Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor at the Supreme Court in Christchurch in 1972. It was a very important day for myself and family.

I was admitted as a solicitor in London in 1980. When I attended the ceremony, I was congratulated by Lord Denning and he shook my hand. I also have a certificate signed by Lord Denning.

When I have been told by clients that my work on their behalf has had a positive effect for them.

Setting up my own practice in 2003 and being self-employed for 15 years.

I am currently employed by Grantham Law in Taupō. In recognition of my 50 years in practice, Grantham Law paid for myself and my sister to travel and be accommodated in Queenstown for a holiday. This recognition was very special.

What have been some of the most challenging parts?

The unpleasant treatment to me at times in the early years because I was female was very difficult.

I had little practical experience once I had obtained my degree. It was not easy having no other female to communicate with about legal practice and court work.

Managing ongoing stress.

What advice would you give to young lawyers starting out?

Most people don’t know everything, and you can’t be expected to know everything. It is important to know where to look something up. See if you can find someone to be a mentor for you.

It has been helpful for me to have a supervisor. I would recommend it. It is helpful to learn sympathetic and reflective listening, and how to manage challenging clients.

As there is now an emphasis on cultural diversity, I believe it is important to research and learn about this aspect and be culturally competent. I have started Te Reo classes.

What do you do in your spare time?

I walk my dog. Animal welfare is important to me. Music and singing have been a major part of my life together with amateur dramatics. I spend a lot of time with my grandson aged four years old. I like to spend time with my friends and family.

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