New Zealand Law Society - Yorkshire-born Francophile’s “backstreet” Sorbonne experience

Yorkshire-born Francophile’s “backstreet” Sorbonne experience

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Anita Birkinshaw
Anita Birkinshaw

Coming to New Zealand from northern England and developing her high school interest in French, commercial litigator Anita Birkinshaw’s legal studies were ultimately drawn to France’s celebrated Sorbonne university.

Arriving in New Zealand aged 11, Anita loved French at school, and through studying the language learned about France and its culture “and was quite fascinated by it”.

“After going on to study the language and French literature at university I decided to delay being a lawyer and taught English in a French high school for a year, in Strasbourg, on the German border.

Anita Norah (Anita) Birkinshaw
Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UK.
Entry to law
Graduated BA (French and German) and LLB (Hons) from Auckland University. Graduated LLM from the University of Paris 1: Pantheon-Sorbonne in 2006. Admitted in 2001.
Senior Associate at Buddle Findlay, Auckland.
Speciality area
Commercial litigator.

“I fell in love with the country. But I couldn’t stay teaching English, I couldn’t control the children. It was a mad house. They were mostly 17, 18 and 19 year old boys. In the end I put the television on and let them watch English TV.

“When I left France I felt I had unfinished business. I came back to New Zealand, practised law and as a 30th birthday present to myself I went off to Paris for more study.

“The Pantheon-Sorbonne is not as glamorous as it sounds, I was disappointed to discover. I thought we would be holding classes in the Pantheon. But no. More of a backstreet. But in terms of the teaching and the people it was an unbelievable experience.

“My master’s course was in French and European law and it was of particular interest to people from around the EU. In my class, which was small, we had people from Sweden, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Germany, and the US. A melting pot and a fascinating experience.”

Before returning to New Zealand, Anita worked for international firms Hogan Lovells for a year and two years with Herbert Smith Freehills in Paris and London.

Anita doesn’t get much opportunity to apply the precise law she learnt while studying in France – which is specific to the EU – but says that in terms of the general principles it is helpful to have a knowledge of how the system works there.

“Not least because we occasionally have clients from Europe and it lends credibility to us and to me as a lawyer to be able to say I am familiar with the legal system, I’m familiar with the concepts. It gives a more worldly nature.

“So I don’t practice EU law in Auckland. I never undertook that study for the purpose of building a practice in European law, it was really an interest-based course.”

Work/life balance  

The first lawyer in the family, Anita’s English father is a real estate agent and her Kiwi Mum a retired school administrator. Husband Joe works in freight industry logistics and they have two boys – Otto (4) and Ivo (2).

“The work/life balance works okay for us because after Ivo was born we made the financially painful, but very practical, decision to engage a nanny to help us. It was more of a juggle with Otto because he was sick a lot but now we are very fortunate to be able to have the nanny. Joe’s work is reasonably flexible and we manage okay.

“Most of my time outside work is with the boys. They like to go to the beach and do typically boy stuff, which was an eye opener for me as we didn’t have brothers to see what they do.

“I am not sporty, I am not going to make any pretence in that area – I was one for the books – so there are no sporting skeletons in my cupboard.

“I did the mandatory South-East Asia backpacker’s trip after university. More recently, after I had kids, we stay closer to home. In New Zealand we are trying to discover more now that we have children I want them to understand how lucky they are to be raised here.

“Being brought up in Yorkshire I really see the difference in my own childhood. It is cold and inland. And we love the Auckland beaches. In winter we bundle our boys up in wet weather gear and get out whatever the weather.

“I’ve been to Nelson/Marlborough region and liked that.”

Anita admits to having “no community interests.”

Hot Potato

“I like music but we spend far too much time listening to The Wiggles so my music tastes aren’t very credible at the moment. The Wiggles’ Hot Potato is the children’s favourite.

“I’m totally out of touch with music and don’t play any instruments – I did a bit of piano as a child, haven’t kept it up but would like to take it up again. But I’m going to see Las Vegas alternative rock band The Killers when they play in Auckland in April.

“I read lots of novels, the most memorable was A Little Life, 814 pages by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. It is massive, harrowing but beautifully written and took a while to get through.

“We watched Stranger Things 2 on television - a little gruesome for me but enjoyable. I want to watch The Deuce, (about the New York porn industry in the 70s and 80s) by David Simon who did The Wire – my all-time favourite. And I think we all watch Suits.

“I haven’t been to the movies since 2015. But I recently saw Foxcatcher, the 2014 American biographical sports crime drama about American billionaire John du Pont’s recruitment of Olympic gold medallist wrestlers.

“I was told from a very young age by my parents that I would be a good lawyer because I argued a lot and it was their way of putting a positive spin on it.

“They felt it might pay off in later life. I was told I needed to put my questioning and arguing to work. I thought it would be fun and as I grew through school it became clear my strengths were more in reading and writing than maths. The more I learned about law it seemed it would be the case.”

Fooled by TV into a law career

“Growing up I was influenced by the golden age of legal dramas – such as Ally McBeal and LA Law – and they all looked quite glamorous, with a lot of eccentric characters to enjoy, and cases to work on.

“Not at all like real life … but it fooled me.”

“I thought till an embarrassingly old age that being a lawyer meant being a litigator. I didn’t realise that people were banking lawyers and tax lawyers until I was a teenager and by that time my heart was set on the litigation side.”

“In my early career I did a number of refugee cases and genuinely feel I made a difference to the clients I worked for at that time. It was an eye-opening and ultimately very challenging experience, and rewarding to assist people who came to New Zealand to claim refugee status.

“Nothing made headlines but I worked for some of the Tampa people. [Australian forces boarding of a distressed vessel, the MV Tampa, carrying more than 400 rescued refugees in 2001 sparked a diplomatic stoush between Australia and Norway.] That was when I was younger and more idealistic. I have since gone on to focus on commercial litigation.”

“I have utmost respect and admiration for people who have devoted their careers to doing refugee work. An increasing focus has come onto the refugee situation.”

Probing the FBI’s top man

“I would have my friends round for dinner because I don’t see them enough, and US special counsel Robert Mueller, because I would love to know what he knows.

“If I plied him with some good New Zealand wine he might tell. Matawhero rosé. I developed a taste for rosé in France. And I would hire a chef - a seafood specialist.

“I drive a white 2012 Peugeot 306 … I think.”

“We have British short hair cats – huge teddy bear cats the size of dogs – called Hemsworth and Barnsley, after the Yorkshire towns where I grew up.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would be a doctor. I think the work they do is life-saving and life-changing. Our first son had heart issues and required surgery and spent a lot of time at Starship.

“The work they do at Starship is incredible and awe-inspiring.”

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