New Zealand Law Society - Oprah-inspired, Egyptian-born lawyer striving to make a contribution

Oprah-inspired, Egyptian-born lawyer striving to make a contribution

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Diana Youssif
Diana Youssif

Diana Youssif, Solicitor, Parry Field Lawyers, Christchurch

Diana Youssif was born and grew up in Cairo, Egypt until her family made Christchurch home when she was 17. She has one younger brother. Diana studied at the University of Canterbury towards a LLB(Hons) and a BA (majoring in Politics and minoring in French) and “did the typical exchange semester” at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

“I was very lucky to receive the Bell Gully scholarship when I was a second-year university student,” she says.

“This provided a normal pathway to my graduate job at the Wellington Bell Gully office. This is where I learnt the importance of attention to detail, systematic analysis and structured problem solving. As of this month I have begun a new stage in my career, as a solicitor in the litigation team at Parry Field Lawyers in Christchurch.”

When did you realise that you wanted to be a lawyer?

“Growing up where I did, being a lawyer was not something that I thought of. I remember I wanted to do something that would help people or make their life easier – so I thought, what could make people feel better more than being a doctor? Unfortunately for me, I struggled with sciences and biology. On the other hand, I loved reading, writing, debating, thinking about different history narratives and I thought to myself being a lawyer was one way I could make a positive impact on those around me, while at the same time do things that I enjoy.”

What do you enjoy most about being a lawyer/your current role?

“I really enjoy being able to contribute positively to something and seeing it through. I enjoyed the research and drafting side of the job at Bell Gully. Or when I find that one case that is directly on point – always a high. I am looking forward to interacting more with clients and doing more practical advocacy work in my next position.

“I still strive to be true to the reasons why I chose to be a lawyer: first, making sure I do my job as properly as I can to make the life of those affected directly by my work slightly better and second, thinking about the bigger picture in terms of how I could, through my skills, contribute to making society a better place, beyond just me, my work and my clients.”

Is there anything you wish you learnt in law school that wasn’t covered during your studies?

“To aim high and not be restrained by pre-conceived ideas of where people of my gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity and sexuality end up and/or are perceived. Being free of those boxes that we sometimes make for ourselves is the most valuable thing I have learnt during my time at university. Go for that job, apply for that scholarship, get involved with that organisation and believe that you actually have a chance to achieve what you want.”

Is there anyone who inspires you?

“I am inspired by my parents, who love, encourage and sacrifice endlessly. I am inspired by Oprah Winfrey, who has overcome lots of difficulties in her life and does her best to positively impact people around her. I am inspired by all the women who do their job to an excellent standard, yet have time and passion for their families or their life outside the workplace. There are a lot of you around and I respect you so much.”

Are there any issues currently facing young lawyers?

“There are multiple issues currently facing young lawyers. I think a problem is the gap between the reasons why we start doing law and the reality of what the job actually entails, at least for certain people in certain workplaces. There is unfortunately, a systematic imbalance of power in the hierarchical structure of law firms, that naturally affects young lawyers adversely. Although some workplaces, and some teams within the same workplace, are better than others, it is not uncommon for young lawyers to face bullying, harassment, pressure to work long hours, having no autonomy over the type of work they do and losing the ability to speak up about their stress levels or that they need further guidance in relation to a certain task. With the current junior salaries, it is also not uncommon for junior lawyers to work below minimum wage, some for a longer period of time than others.

“As you could tell by now, I enjoy advocating for things to become better and for standards to be raised. This is why I am privileged to be part of the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union’s elected executive. We are advocating for changing the status quo in legal workplaces, in the hope that legal workers would one day be more supported, valued and healthier (mentally and physically).”

How do you switch off after work?

“Exercise and catching up with good supportive friends usually does the trick. Early nights are also necessary. The right balance of outside-of-work commitments is also key. I am still in the process of trying to figure out how I can navigate that in my own life.”

What advice would you have for someone going through the same process you did to enter the profession?

“Full-time work is quite different from university life – and no one prepares you for that. Your time is no longer yours, there are more people affected by your actions than just yourself and you need to identify who and what you prioritise because you can no longer commit to everything.

“It is important to remember that what will work for you is not necessarily what works for someone else. Do not put yourself in a box, extend lots of olive branches, do not hold grudges and make your own way. Do not be scared to be true to yourself and speak up when you need to. Look after your fellow colleagues starting out too – they are also going through similar things.”

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