Ebborn Law Ltd, Addington, Christchurch
With 10 female practitioners – seven lawyers and three case managers – Ebborn Law in Christchurch is one of the biggest all-women New Zealand law firms.
“Family Law is our Speciality”, the firm’s busy and extremely informative website states (along with some comprehensive information about the value billing model used).
The Ebborn lawyers
Erin Ebborn is the Principal Solicitor of Ebborn Law. She studied political science and law at Canterbury University and moved to Palmerston North after graduating, working in family law. After two and a half years working for family lawyer Bruce Andrews, Erin decided to move back to Christchurch where she worked as an associate with Cuningham Taylor followed by Layburn Hodgins.
2012 was a big year for Erin. She enrolled in the NZLS Stepping Up course, although she never intended to work as a sole practitioner. However, later in the year Erin joined forces with CEO Jarrod Coburn and the new law firm opened in September of that year.
Erin wanted to establish a different kind of law firm. With the legal aid reforms resulting in the introduction of the fixed fee regime for family law legal aid services, Erin was concerned whether the firm would cope financially with providing the service; a concern Ebborn Law has since blown out of the water, with 90% of the firm’s clients using legal aid.
Tell me a bit about Ebborn Law as a firm and the circumstances surrounding the 100% female staff result.
“Yes, this happened by chance. Ebborn Law has 10 staff with a law degree qualification.” The firm specialises in family law “so in part this reflects the over-representation of women in that area of practice. When we have advertised for staff, significantly more women than men apply for the role, even when we advertise for non-legally-qualified positions, in our case management team.”
“Being mindful of unconscious bias we now remove identifying features from covering letters and CVs. This also is a part of our commitment to the WEPs (Women’s Empowerment Principles), instituted by the United Nations. But we can’t force men to apply!”
She points out that Ebborn Law’s five-person management team also has three women in key leadership roles.
Culturally, Ebborn Law’s team reflects seven different cultures and between the staff it is fluent in four languages: “This really shows the extent that we value diversity and see language ability as a desirable skill.”
Family law can be quite a sensitive subject, and delicate approaches are usually required – especially when working with children. What mindsets help make your firm successful in this area?
“At a strategic level Ebborn Law has four principles: profit, quality, relationships and leadership. Balancing those four strategic intents is what has led to Ebborn Law being a success in this area.”
She praises her management team saying they are “dedicated towards implementing strategy at the operational level [which] means as practitioners we can focus on the quality of the legal services we require, knowing the business is in good hands.”
Erin explains that “the four strategic intents are also reflected on a daily basis in how we deliver our services to customers. My first employer, Bruce Andrews, once told me that it is very difficult to ask someone for help, so every time a client asks us for assistance we need to be humble in understanding what it has meant for that person to ask. Whilst that was almost 20 years ago, the meaning in that lesson is one I still impart to all my staff.
“Some of our clients have very difficult backgrounds and can be quite challenging to deal with or to assist. It always helps to remember that this is a person who has asked us for help; that offering respect is required before demanding respect. That is part of the fiduciary duty we owe as lawyers to our clients.”
I noticed you have a unique approach to the working day, does Practising Well factor into this function?
Ebborn Law closes between 1pm and 2pm every day. “We lock the office door and turn off the phones,” says Erin. “Work can be very busy so we do our best to give our staff a peaceful lunch hour.”
Erin values the benefit and importance of this down time, saying “it is also a great time to gather together, eat kai and share stories.”
Ebborn Law offers every firm employee four sessions per year with a clinical psychologist to encourage emotional health and best practice. Erin stresses “it is not enough to simply ‘be tough’ because nobody can work in family law without being affected by the personal stories of the clients.”
This is a great example of Practising Well principles being applied in practice, and it’s great to see firms using them.
“We’re very grateful to the hard work invested by the New Zealand Law Society around this area. Earlier this year the management team formally adopted the principles of Practising Well (healthy mind, healthy body, healthy practice) as a subset of measures under our four strategic intents. As a result, we now have a staff member appointed as our ‘Health and Wellbeing Champion’ and I am the member on the management team who sponsors the initiative at the senior level.”
Erin and her team have conceived a strategy to be brought in over the next year which will look at a variety of important well-being related areas to further improve Ebborn Law’s Practising Well initiative.
Do you see your firm expanding?
“Definitely. Since Ebborn Law opened in 2012 we have grown by one-third every year. However, our ‘footprint’ in our Christchurch office is now at maximum capacity with seven family lawyers available by Christmas time.”
The firm uses technology a great deal and Erin says that “our expansion doesn’t require bricks and mortar to have a presence. It is within our strategic plan to open at least one branch office outside of Christchurch next year.” (The firm currently provides a nationwide service using Microsoft Lync).
Erin is passionate about helping those in need, which clearly filters through to her firm’s attitude to their work. Given the firm’s speciality, she emphasises the importance of legal aid and its benefits to those who are in desperate need of its services. “There is a lot of talk at the moment about how tough it is to provide legal aid in family law, and that is true to some extent. But the profession should not ignore this achievement.”
Ebborn Law is a firm where 90% of the clients are on legal aid, says Erin. “I think this is an important point, and I want to emphasise it: we have grown a successful law firm from scratch, funded almost entirely through operating revenue ... It possible to make a profitable living from legal aid, but to do this the profession needs to change the internal and public discourse from ‘how do we maintain the status quo’ to ‘how do we become more efficient, more relevant, more agile’?”is
Do you have any advice you could give new graduates entering the profession? Or to those who want to practise family law?
“Family law is a rewarding area of practice because the role you play has a palpable impact on the family you are involved with. The reforms to the Family Court have not ‘killed’ family law – it has just changed – so don’t be afraid to step into the arena.
“As for advice to new graduates: on a basic level, don’t say you ‘have an eye for detail’ and then have errors in your CV and covering letter! And never, ever tell an interviewer that you know a lot about family law … because you really don’t. You are the legal equivalent to Jon Snow*.
“A lot of grads feel that they must show off their talents, but you simply can’t compete with every other grad.
“What gets you through the door to an interview is following what it says in the advert (if it specifies a one-page resume then don’t send a four-page novella!), a professional letter and CV, and some great volunteering work. Community Law always needs volunteers – get in there as early as you can. Victim Support, refuges, just about any NGO or social service organisation could use help doing something. You are just about guaranteed not to be short-listed at my firm if you haven’t shown some level of community commitment.
“I have a message for those in the profession, too, because we need to be watchful of the new graduates.
“We are starting to see the initial rumblings of a tsunami of IT-savvy millennials who won’t be constrained by conventional mindsets and methodology. It won’t be a matter of what the profession offers these new graduates, but whether we can actually keep up with them. Change is constant and it applies to all of us. I understand that many people aren’t comfortable with change – but if change makes you uncomfortable you’re going to like obsolescence even less!”
*For anyone unfamiliar with , Erin made a wonderful reference to the quote “You know nothing Jon Snow!” Game of Thrones
Ebborn Law Ltd
285 Lincoln Road, Addington, Christchurch
- Erin Ebborn. A Lawyer for the Child, member of the NZLS Family Law Section executive committee, influenced in early life by Ben Matlock.
Supervising Senior Solicitor
- Amy Lake. A Lawyer for the child. Hails from Waikato. Loves Dalmatians (the dogs, but she might also have a soft spot for the people too – we’ve never asked).
- Esther Jones. A veteran of Ebborn Law, left a plum job with Ministry of Justice to join the firm when it was only just new.
- Anna Venz. Hails from deepest Southland. Joined as a grad. Used to work at an aluminium smelter – we thought that was cool so we hired her.
- Mei-Chien Huang. From Taiwan originally. Joined as a grad. Is a fan of forensic history and a movie buff.
- Sandra Iskander. Comes all the way from exotic Egypt. Joined as a grad. A source of incredible joy in the firm.
- Tui Scott. From Blenheim, an equally exotic and mysterious location. Joined as a grad. Thinks climbing mountains at the ends of the Earth is a ‘holiday’.
- Melissa Vandeyar. Joined as a grad. Made the smart move from Auckland to take up the role.
- Amy Campbell. Joined as a grad. Will be admitted in December. Has a penchant for flat-pack furniture?
- Kaknika Lap. Joined as a grad. Not yet admitted but very enthusiastic.
“In addition, we employ a few hardy non-legally qualified staff, who I treasure just as much,” says Erin.