New Zealand Law Society - New top Defence lawyer: Justin Emerson

New top Defence lawyer: Justin Emerson

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Colonel Justin Emerson has been promoted to the top job in the New Zealand Defence Force legal team ‒ Director of Defence Legal Services and Director of Military Prosecutions.

Officially signing his statutory warrant as the Director of Military Prosecutions was the man who served as Colonel Emerson’s first Commanding Officer, the Governor General, Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae.

Born and raised in Wellington, Colonel Emerson attended Upper Hutt College before studying law at Victoria University.

“Back in the 1980s most students were only interested in criminal law, but then you get into the reality of it and commercial law pays a lot better,” he says.

But it wasn’t long before Colonel Emerson realised he needed something more exciting, after coming to the realisation that commercial law was “as interesting as watching paint dry and horribly demoralising”.

“I used to have dinner on Friday nights with my brother who was studying medicine at the time and I would ask ‘how was your week?’ and he would reply about his frantic medical work at some terrible crash site involving traumatic amputations and rescue helicopters. When he asked about my week I would say ‘well I put in a couple of overseas investment applications and had two small businesses wound up’, and it dawned on me that I could be having the same conversation in 20 years’ time.”

So Colonel Emerson signed up for the Army in search of a more stimulating career.

“I actually had two recruitment interviews because they couldn’t work out why I would want to leave a successful career in a commercial law firm. I told them I wanted to do something more challenging, and that I would have worked for them for nothing just to achieve that,” he says.

After graduating in 1991, Colonel Emerson soon found himself as Infantry Platoon Commander 1 RNZIR under then Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Mateparae. He held a number of command positions within the First Battalion, and also completed a tour of duty with the Singaporean Armed Forces as part of 1 Commando Battalion.

He has served on several international missions including Sinai in 1995 and Afghanistan in 2005, but his operational highlight was a six month deployment to East Timor in 2000.

“The command team left that mission feeling that we could have taken our battalion anywhere in the world into any operational scenario and we would have excelled – it was a great feeling,” he said. 

On his return from East Timor Colonel Emerson was posted to MARCOM (Maritime Command HQ) in 2001 before transferring to HQJFNZ in 2002. 

“I enjoyed every single day at Joint Forces. It was quite a well-kept secret that it was a brilliant posting for lawyers.”

Colonel Emerson was then moved to the Defence Legal Services team at HQNZDF in 2009 under the outgoing Director, Brigadier Kevin Riordan, who has been appointed as Deputy Judge Advocate General.

Such is the current profile of military lawyers in the New Zealand Defence Force, Colonel Emerson has observed an “unprecedented level of interest” from civilian legal specialists trying to join the Defence Force legal team.

“It’s widely acknowledged that we have one of the broadest practices in Government. We have an organisation of over 12,000, we have naval bases, airports and ships and we move around the world – so the legal issues we advise on are incredibly broad.”

“At the end of the day you feel as if you have contributed to something far greater than the average 9-5 job where the level of intensity in the provision of legal advice is unparalleled in any other legal environment.”

Colonel Emerson also officiated over the promotion of five other members of the Defence Legal Services team at a special ceremony on September 27. They included Major Lisa Ferris, Lieutenant Kelly Ashton, Captain Rosalind Mitchell, Captain James Kennedy-Good and Captain Grant Fletcher.

This article was first published in LawTalk 830, 25 October 2013, page 18.

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