New Zealand Law Society - Sarah Armstrong talks about her career, mentoring and work/life balance

Sarah Armstrong talks about her career, mentoring and work/life balance

Sarah is an award-winning litigation specialist with over two decades of experience advising on a wide range of commercial disputes, both in New Zealand and in the UK. She practises as an independent barrister at Shortland Chambers in Auckland.

Outside her professional roles, Sarah served as an elected member of the NZLS Auckland Branch Council from 2016 to 2018, is a regular contributor to CPD training and is a non-executive director of an investment company focused on telecommunications, technology, utilities and media.

What inspired you to pursue a career in law and what are some of the highlights so far?

I don’t think I ever really had a career in law mapped out. In actual fact I always leaned more towards the sciences than the arts. However, I did enjoy a good debate and the potential for advocacy roles drew me to the law.

A real highlight for me has been the opportunity to work with young lawyers and see them develop into amazing and capable professionals. Those who have a passion for working alongside different people and organisations quickly earn the trust and respect of clients and it is rewarding to see how that often materialises into new opportunities for them.

In terms of career and professional success, how important is it to develop professional networks in and outside the legal community?

It’s hugely important. Law is all about people, so providing sufficient opportunities for people (both in and outside the legal community) to get to know and trust you as a professional is always going to be fundamental to your success.

However, developing meaningful networks takes time. As I learned the hard way at the start of my career, building these relationships is not about attending every event. Often it’s as simple as doing a great job for a client or getting involved in community or legal projects.

How much emphasis would you put on on-going development and what type of learning would you recommend - peer review or something else?

I put a lot of emphasis on the on-going development – change is, after all, a constant feature of our role. What’s more, it’s incredibly satisfying to feel that you are continuing to learn and improve at every stage of your career.

For me, the most valuable learnings or insights I have gained have usually come from seeking informal feedback from people whose views and opinions I trust – including colleagues, junior lawyers and clients.  Although it can be intimidating to ask clients in particular for their views, the feedback they provide is essential: in my experience, they value the relationships they develop with external legal providers, they are invested in obtaining the best results from teams and they are therefore especially well-placed to offer different perspectives (outside the limited lens of the profession) on a broader range of leadership attributes.

Are there any key learnings you are able to share – especially for younger lawyers who have only just recently entered the law?

The three I would suggest – and all of these come from people far wiser than me – are:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Accept that you are going to make mistakes – but believe that you’ll be a better lawyer as a result.

Your reputation is everything. Guard it fiercely.

How do you think mentoring could assist with one’s career and personal development? Have you ever had a mentor or been a mentor? If so, in what way did you find it useful?

Having guidance and support from generous mentors has made all the difference in my career. Their insights have helped me to regain perspective in difficult times and to develop greater confidence as a professional. I am particularly grateful to my former boss from my time working as a lawyer in London – and 20 years on, I still maintain regular contact with him and his wife!

How do you manage your work-life balance with such a high performing career?

Like all working parents, I’m not sure you ever feel that the balance is right (other than when you’re on holiday!).

Everyone’s experiences will be different, but for me I have always enjoyed having a career, so when our two lovely children (now 13 and 15) were born, I wanted to find a way to do things differently.  Initially it was very much a process of trial and error. I worked part-time for a while, then full-time (which was actually less stressful than working part-time), made partner (full-time) and then in recent years entered into a flexible working arrangement and am now at the bar.

Living somewhere which offered a short commute was invaluable when our children were small. I was also lucky enough to have a lot of support from family, including a husband who became the primary care-giver for many years (while studying full-time) and grandparents/family members who were and still are very generous with their time.

One thing I have learned is that perspective is everything. It’s easy to fall into the trap of judging yourself too harshly by evaluating what you’ve done only over a short period of time.  In my experience, it helps if you can step back and assess your actions over a longer period, instead of within the confines of just a day or a week. It’s often difficult to find perspective; identify someone in your life who is good at helping you with that and cherish them!

Another coaching tip that has always resonated with me is that it’s ok to be temporarily “off balance”, as long as you are doing it for a good reason. I found that message quite an empowering way to think about how you make decisions, as it allows you to trust your instincts and make choices that reflect your own circumstances and values.  There is no escaping the fact that rewarding jobs (in any industry) will require concentrated passion and focus at times. However, investing effort during those periods doesn’t mean you have to give up what is important to you.

Where would you like to see the legal industry in New Zealand in ten years’ time?

I’d like to see an industry acknowledged for embracing real change across key areas such as culture, sustainable work practices and climate change.

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