Suzanne Innes-Kent has an impressive list of qualifications: an LLB(Hons); LLM (Distinction); Dip Soc Sci (Distinction) and BA(Hons). But that only tells part of her story. Suzanne has also trained and worked in a myriad of fields, and a war zone.
She has trained election monitors in Italy, doctors involved in the civil war in Sri Lanka, World Health Organisation (WHO) officials in Geneva, and done training in the Australian outback “for assistance to a human rights NGO to work with UN agencies in war zones”.
She says the WHO work was to ensure entry into areas of Sri Lanka that desperately needed help.
“My husband and I were training medical personnel in negotiating entry to rebel-held areas for public health reasons – eg, children’s inoculations, water sanitation and such. Medical personnel were some of the few who could cross lines during the civil war.
“We were under contract to the WHO, which then invited us to Geneva to train their headquarters staff in negotiation/mediation. We had previously trained Italian election monitors, through a project jointly run by the Italian government and a particular university. That is how we got invited to do the WHO programme,” she says.
Before the law
“I had been working for many years as a workplace consultant specialising in conflict and relationship-building, so I was doing lots of mediation, but there was a limit to what I could do without legal training.
“A particular memory is of being called in to provide professional coaching to a senior manager, then accompanying him to an ‘off the record’ informal meeting where he was served with a termination notice, and thinking ‘this cannot be right’, but having no idea how to stand up for him. On the other hand, I have worked for employers dealing with seriously incompetent or unacceptable employee behaviours and trying too hard to accommodate them.”
These experiences encouraged Suzanne’s interest in the law, specifically in employment law.
“I did an LLM at Victoria University while working more or less full-time, and loved that; but then later, for family reasons, I had to return from Singapore where my husband and I were living, and I saw my chance to do the LLB, thus reinforcing my husband’s view that I specialise in doing things in the wrong order.
“To go to university not just as a mature student, but as someone long in the tooth with very varied life experience, was an absolute privilege. I loved everything I learned in all my subjects, and now that I am focusing on employment law, my only regret is that I am not pursuing other interesting areas of law.”
A portfolio career
“My background experience means that I can see the human stories behind both parties in litigation.
“I also have limited tolerance for the occasional elitism I come across in the law profession. I value hugely the institutions of law and its superb senior practitioners, including and, in particular, the judges I am privileged to work with.
“I think that law views people and issues quite narrowly, and law firms would benefit from having people who have done something else too. My background in psychology, for instance, brings a perspective on the dynamics of handling self-litigants.
“Any non-law background will widen the perspective of people entering a career in law. In my case, I have had something of a ‘portfolio’ career.”
Along with her academic accomplishments, Suzanne has worked in radio and television talking about personal relationships. She has written two books, Someone To Love and Love for All Seasons; set up litigation-avoiding ‘partnerships’ in major utilities management contracts; been a teacher and a social worker, and also been a social work trainer.
“I have been mentor and coach across organisations from boards and CEOs to frontline staff, from a mayor and councillors to possum hunters who lived mostly in the bush. Prior to my social work career, I taught at high schools both in New Zealand and in Tonga.”
Enjoyment in her legal work
Suzanne’s first legal job is her current one.
“I am still in my first legal job, as Judges’ Clerk at the Auckland Employment Court. There I am at the heart of the interpretation and application of the law in the employment field. It is endlessly demanding and constantly novel.
“I love the sense of contribution to finding legal answers to often complex and most important problems. I get a buzz from arguing the point with the most knowledgeable people in the field. I have learned that you are never too old to learn, that research really does pay off, and that law really is about justice, despite some public scepticism.”
“I am constantly inspired by people around me – but people who combine intellect and worldly acumen with down-to-earth humanity will do it for me every time.
“Lawyer Karen Harding, who fought for exploited Indonesian fishermen, is my most recent inspiration.”
Ms Harding won a case in the Supreme Court for 30 Indonesian fishermen seeking redress from the Crown and a South Korean fishing company for human rights breaches due to lack of pay, poor working conditions and violence.
Current issues in the legal profession
With a unique view on the world, Suzanne’s observations on the legal profession from now working at the frontline are logical, constructive criticisms felt by many in the legal profession.
“I think things are changing. Law firms need to find more creative work arrangements so that people can work flexibly, or on contract, as well as in traditional employment relationships. This means being more family and life-friendly.
“Fees need to come down – fees are the biggest barrier to access to justice.
“Harassment of women - and I have no doubt some men - is now being investigated. Ridiculously long, exploitative hours need to be tackled.
“Mentoring schemes are important – starting out in law is tough in the best of circumstances – it matters to get it right and there is much to learn. The online world is in the process of changing fundamentally the way lawyers will need to work. We need to get clear what it is we offer that cannot be done by an algorithm.”
Suzanne is quite possibly qualified to provide a novel-length list of advice, but she shares just one simple but encouraging piece of advice to both lawyers and non-lawyers alike:
“Hold out for what you want; think not just about the job but about the kind of profession you want to be part of. Get involved in local legal practitioner groups.”