Keen road cyclist Cynthia Garton made it back to New Zealand after 10 years working overseas last December, a timely move given both Europe and New Zealand were plunged into lockdown three months later.
She returned to Christchurch from the Netherlands at Christmas, seeking new opportunities in the law.
“I got back in time for the lockdown and had my first return birthday in lockdown. I wouldn’t like to be stuck in Europe right now, being reliant on visas and other formalities,” she says.
- Cynthia Frances (Cynthia) Garton
- Dargaville, Northland
- Entry to law
- Graduated BA (Majoring in German) and LLB (Honours) from Canterbury University. Admitted in 2007.
- Speciality area
- Business law.
“I have been in that situation where you are worried about your reliance on a work visa. In the Dutch employment market you always start on a temporary contract which for various reasons may not become permanent for several years.
“It is difficult to be made permanent over there and employment law is really quite different to here. During a lockdown you could be in the position where you have no access to public funds if your contract is not extended, and only a short time within which to find a new role or become an overstayer on your visa.
“You could well be left in an awful financial situation – for example, it would not be unusual to be locked into a lease for a minimum term of 12 months. These issues would be a nightmare for an expat. In hindsight, it was a good decision to come back when I did.”
She initially went to the Netherlands as an international in-house legal counsel after a two-year working holiday and in-house role in London. “I wasn’t ready to come back to New Zealand. I wanted to spend more time in Europe and experience something different than just a typical OE in the UK. I was offered a role in Amsterdam, which was a unique opportunity for me.”
With a BA majoring in German, Cynthia says keeping up her languages is very important to her. “I learned Dutch to the best of my ability. Over there you are always going to be viewed as not Dutch, as an expat, and people will give you more respect if you take the time and effort to learn some Dutch.”
“If you end up working for a Dutch employer, as I did, it’s hard to socially integrate within the organisation without some knowledge of Dutch. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place. While there is no expectation that you learn Dutch, if you want to be part of the team and fabric of the organisation then you are not going to be able to do that without the language, so it is definitely in your best interests to learn it.
“For me it was made a little easier, as I could fall back on my German. I did a German cultural exchange when I was 16 and had my first taste of living in Europe. My German helped me pick up Dutch more quickly than I otherwise would have, and my Dutch employer at the time invested in me learning the language and sent me off to a top language institute in the south of the country, which I really appreciated and enjoyed.”
Cynthia is one of four children, and hails from a long line of dairy farmers based in Northland. The family had a large dairy farm in Ruawai, near Dargaville, where she was born. She grew up in Northland until she was 13, when the family moved to Christchurch.
Hitting the road
Living in a flat country like the Netherlands, her passion for cycling was easily pursued.
“I have always enjoyed road cycling and enjoyed competing in women’s races during my time in the Netherlands. I tried to get out on my bike as much as could and many weekends were spent in races and events around the country. I also enjoy running, tennis, skiing and I am keen to learn golf properly.
“I started road cycling during my time in Australia, and have not done any road cycling in New Zealand yet. My bike has been stuck somewhere on its way from the Netherlands to New Zealand due to the lockdown, so I’m running a lot at the moment.”
She says her Catholic schooling directly influenced her leaning towards studying law rather than having two lawyer cousins. “I learned the importance of justice and fairness, and treating people as you would want to be treated yourself.”
“I was also always interested in the concepts behind law. I was about 15 at the time of the disappearance of Ben Smart and Olivia Hope (January 1998) and I followed the case closely.
“I was interested in how New Zealand would deal with the case. It made me feel a sense of anger and, of course, the need for fairness and justice in society. It also inspired me to learn more about New Zealand’s criminal justice system and miscarriages of justice, which was one of the subjects I chose to focus on for one of my Honours dissertations.
“I like helping people, being a trusted adviser, building relationships with clients and finding solutions for people with legal issues. I enjoy learning and that includes new areas of law.
“I like the collegiality of the profession, but while I was overseas it was disappointing to read about some of the more challenging issues within the profession here – bullying and sexual harassment. I followed it from overseas and was disappointed to see the extent of it in the profession, and how it had seen many lawyers fed up and leave the profession entirely.
“The Dutch wouldn’t tolerate that. I never saw bullying there, and never heard about sexual harassment. I think that it would be stamped out in the Netherlands. There is a lot more social policing there.”
A ballet dancer until she was 17, Cynthia doesn’t currently play any musical instruments but joined the Canterbury Lawyers’ Choir this year.
“I listen to a really broad range of music – both New Zealand and foreign – but I don’t really have any specific favourite bands.
“Because of my ballet, I definitely appreciate the classicals – Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Strauss – but also really like alternative indie rock type bands.
“I am an active relaxer and along with my sport, I enjoy reading a lot. I saw Canadian writer Margaret Atwood talk in Christchurch recently. And I like to focus on learning languages, keeping up my Dutch and German and I started learning French during lockdown.
“I’m not really a big TV watcher, I’ll watch the odd documentary and love a good foreign film. I also like something funny or a drama and anything historical, cultural or about travel.
“Growing up, our holidays involved seeing more of Northland, and seeing family in the Far North – Mangonui and the Bay of Islands. When I lived in Auckland as a junior lawyer following university, I enjoyed regularly visiting the Coromandel with friends.” Her favourite winter holiday spot is Wanaka.
Cynthia enjoyed exploring what was on her doorstep during her years in Europe and as a keen road cyclist her favourite place was Girona in Spain, where various non-European pro cyclists base themselves home during the season.
“My dinner guests would include the Queen – because she has seen so much in her long life – Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal ballerina in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy, and the awesome Spanish road cyclist Big Mig,” she says referring to five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain.
“I would make this year’s lockdown birthday dish – a chicken fricassee with garlic, lemon and plenty of fresh herbs – a tasty French style stew, and would match it with some French wine: a good pinot gris or a nice red. And also introduce my guests to a Central Otago pinot noir.”
House-building in Nepal
Cynthia was an in-house legal counsel for close to four years for SKM engineering consultants in Auckland and Australia.
“When I worked in-house at SKM in Auckland they had a company initiative where anyone in the company could apply to win an opportunity to undertake some humanitarian work in Nepal on behalf of the company.
“I wrote an opinion piece on three topics, including on sustainability and how this related to the work of our engineering consultancy, and was fortunate to be selected to go to Nepal to take part in a women’s home-building initiative with Habitat for Humanity.
“It was my first exposure to Nepalese/Indian culture. We were building homes out of bamboo, the most plentiful material there, for widowed women.
“There were about a hundred women from across Australasia working in teams helping the widows to build 15 houses in a village, with the help of Habitat for Humanity.
“It was an amazing experience. I don’t think that I would have had the opportunity to do something like this if I had been working in a law firm – the opportunity arose because I was working in-house.
“If I wasn’t in the law then I think I would be teaching disadvantaged children in somewhere like Nepal where there is a lot of need. The law would still be an aspect of what I did.”
Cynthia has done a lot of volunteer work for children’s charities while overseas, and is a member of the Canterbury Women’s Law Association. She has long supported the Canterbury Community Law Centre, both as a volunteer caseworker and paid manager of the student caseworker team there back in her law school days, and now provides pro bono advice.
She is also an active director of the Villa Maria College Christchurch Ltd Board of Proprietors. In that role she is entrusted by the Sisters of Mercy, Nga Whaea Atawhai O Aotearoa, to preserve and nurture their Mercy ministry in catholic education.