Mary-Jane Thomas broke the education mould when she began her legal university studies over 30 years ago: no one in her family had ever attended university.
“My father was a freezing worker who left school at age 14. From the time I was five years old, he told me I’d be a lawyer. Apart from once considering journalism and toying with medicine, I knew I’d be a lawyer,” she says.
Miss Thomas, who is of Ngai Tahu descent, was admitted in 1990 after gaining a First Class Honours LLB at the University of Otago.
“My father didn’t have a formal education. He told me the only way to get through life was to get an education. He pushed that point with me even before I started school.”
Some people might think that impressing such values on a child before she could tie her shoelaces is overly serious and even authoritarian, but that isn’t how Miss Thomas views it.
“Nobody from both my parents’ sides of the family had ever gone to university. Very few had even finished secondary school. For us it was a really big deal. The truancy officers used to chase my father down because he had left school and was working at what was the Makarewa Freezing Works. It was kind of ironic that he was so keen for me to get an education yet he ran far away from his,” she says.
Born and bred in the Deep South
Mary-Jane Thomas was born and raised in Invercargill. She is a managing partner at Preston Russell Law, where she became partner at 27.
She was also the first woman to gain appointment as Crown Solicitor from a private firm.
Invercargill often gets a bad rap from fellow New Zealanders and even visitors, but Miss Thomas possesses a strong fondness for the city where she grew up on a stud horse farm. She is a harness racing enthusiast to this day.
“We still have horses. My marriage broke up a while ago so I moved back home with my parents. My dad is nearly 80 years old and still trains the horses. He’s not so good at driving anymore so my job is to drive the float with the horses,” she says.
Miss Thomas draws comparisons between horse trainers and lawyers, saying they have a few tricks in common.
“They’re the eternal optimists. There’s no such thing as a bad race for a trainer – just a work in progress. It’s helpful when you’re a lawyer to be an optimist otherwise you just couldn’t do it. There are often a lot more bad days than good days. I tell my young lawyers that at work when you’ve had a day where things have gone well and you look like a rock star in court, savour it. You need to enjoy it,” she says.
Hard work – then more hard work
Mary-Jane Thomas didn’t consider the level of her degree as a major achievement at the time.
“Again, because none of us had ever been to university. When I was growing up, my dad never really accepted anything other than top marks. So if I got 90% in an exam at school, rather than say ‘that’s really good’, he would ask me who got the top mark.
“I’m not saying this was a good thing, but I remember the day my father dropped me off in Dunedin for university. He hugged me and said, ‘now go and beat them’. That’s just the way he was. I did work very hard. Sure, I’m a reasonably bright person, but I’m also a really hard worker. In saying that, I’d rather employ people who are hard workers but less academic than an overly clever person who doesn’t know how to work,” she says.
Miss Thomas believes super intellect in law isn’t necessarily the key to being good at practising law.
“No, because so much of law is graft, tenacity and resilience. Just being clever means that you can write a decent opinion but most of what we do is much more than that,” she says.
Staying in law for nearly 30 years
“I have a few friends who are judges. It tends to happen when you’ve been involved in law this long. My friend, a judge, told me she felt that I irritatingly enjoyed the law. She considered me lucky because of that. She said the extent to which I enjoyed the law actually irritated her. But I do love court. I could never be a conveyancer.”
In law you’re often passing on knowledge especially when you’ve had a long career.
And Miss Thomas has taken the time over the years to help young lawyers. It’s something she savours.
“One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me was actually from one of our young partners who described me as both a great teacher as well as a great lawyer. Not all lawyers like me, as I can be pretty bloody tough but I genuinely like mentoring young lawyers,” she says.
The lure of the courtroom
Reflecting on her long legal tour of duty in the courtroom, Miss Thomas says it’s the drama and pressure that draws her in and keeps her grounded.
“I like the theatre of it. You’re thinking on your feet. You have to know the law of evidence and it’s not the law of evidence where you get to think about it for 20 weeks and then write an opinion. Anything you can do as a prosecutor can be appealed so every time you say a word wrong, you tend to think ‘will there be a person on the Court of Appeal judging me on this’?”
Miss Thomas says lawyers have to be incredibly tight with their words in the courtroom.
“I teach this to our young lawyers. I tell them to be aware of what the words they use mean. Be aware of what they sound like because everything you say in the courtroom has a meaning or a point, and as a prosecutor you can have a safe verdict on everything other than ‘you said something stupid’. That could mean you have to do the whole thing again, and the victims of a crime have to go through it all again.”
Turning defence lawyer?
Mary-Jane Thomas says people have told her that she would excel in defence law.
“I would be able to be far more less-restrained. I would, however, have a problem defending child sex abuse cases. I’ve seen the devastation caused in our society. There are some murderers I’ve prosecuted and, supposing they were eventually released, I could sit with some of them and have a drink and talk. I understand how people can murder people despite it not being justified but I cannot understand people who sexually abuse children. I don’t think I could cross examine a child either,” she says.
Miss Thomas says as a prosecutor her job is not to strive to win.
“The most difficult and challenging offending I prosecute is sexual offending and it is particularly hard to prosecute where the alleged offending is against children. In those cases there truly is no positive outcome, ever. Over the years my focus has changed and if I know (whether there is a conviction or not) that I have competently prosecuted and allowed the complainant to be heard I am content,” she says.
Black humour to cope
The criminal courtroom exposes all who enter it to harrowing details.
Mary-Jane Thomas says a little black humour has helped many lawyers and police get through some of the most horrific of cases.
“You have to be tough and people ask how I deal with it. Well, somebody has to do this work. Humour is a great remedy,” she says.
However, as strong as she may appear in the warring set of a courtroom, Miss Thomas says she can’t stomach movies that show lots of blood.
“I can’t go to war movies. It upsets me too much. I couldn’t watch Saving Private Ryan. I can’t go to movies where people die. I’m just unable to view it as fiction. I still haven’t seen Sophie’s Choice. I see enough horror in my work and don’t need to go to the movies to see more of it.”
But while some may question the use of black humour in criminal law, it needs to be remembered that some criminal lawyers are prosecuting the worst of society.
Feeling relief after a successful conviction
Satisfaction isn’t a word that Miss Thomas would use to describe winning a case before court.
“As a prosecutor I never feel anything after a conviction for something like murder or serious offending other than relief. The problem about what we do is that there are still victims. I often say to families of murder victims that we can’t make it any better, they have still lost somebody they love. To that extent, therefore, really you are on a hiding to nothing as a prosecutor because I think when you get a conviction you are still left with a sense of profound sadness. And when you do not get a conviction you are left with a sense either of disappointment or concern that you may not have done a good enough job,” she says.
And when a case doesn’t go a prosecutor’s way, it’s not an easy outcome to stomach.
“I have experienced a situation where a conviction for murder was not gained and I believe it should have been. I felt personally responsible for that and although this happened many years ago I have continued to look back on that matter wondering if I could have done things differently.
“Ironically I do not look back on any of the ‘convictions’ at all. As I said, one tends to remember, I think as a prosecutor, the convictions with a sense of relief and the acquittals often with concern you have let people down,” she says.
Miss Thomas has two sons and she’s passionate about rugby. She represented the Southland province women’s team.
“I’m on the board of Rugby Southland. My boys play rugby. I probably spent a decade serving hot chips at the Blues Rugby Club. I’m very good in the kitchen,” she says.
Her eldest son, 17-year-old Thomas, is head boy at Verdon College, the same school that Miss Thomas was head girl of more than 30 years ago. Her younger son Alex is 12.
“I’m quite blokey. I spend time with my kids, go to the horse races and watch a lot of rugby.”
The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and she has offered some similar career advice as her father gave to her children.
“I just say, whatever you choose to do, do something you enjoy and be really good at it. That’s my father coming through me,” she says.
While most of her working life has been in Invercargill, Mary-Jane spent five years with Crown Law in Wellington in the early stages of her career.
“I had a husband and a baby. I’d wanted to become a Crown solicitor. We wanted to have one of us at home with the children, so we decided that I would be the main breadwinner and he would stay at home with the kids, and we moved back south.”
Along with prosecution, she leads the Employment Law team at Preston Russell Law.
“It’s a good balance because I act for employees. It’s sort of my defence work in a way. I’m acting for the underdog. I’m not as restricted because when I’m in the Employment Court, I’m not representing the Crown. I get to be a normal lawyer, it’s quite fun,” she says.