New Zealand Law Society - How we practise: Sally Gepp and Madeleine Wright

How we practise: Sally Gepp and Madeleine Wright

How we practise: Sally Gepp and Madeleine Wright

Based 800 kilometres apart, Sally Gepp and Madeleine Wright work successfully together. Based in Auckland and Nelson, the two share how they’ve made their remote partnership work despite the distance.

With a passion for environmental and resource management law Sally Gepp and Madeleine Wright first worked alongside each other at two environmental NGOs. Now they work together, despite being based more than 800 kilometres apart.

We recently caught up with the two to find out how they make their remote partnership work, with Sally based in Nelson and Madeleine in Auckland.

What’s been the key to making remote working a success for you both?

Sally: Part of the reason we’ve managed to make this work is that we knew each other beforehand. We had worked alongside each other when I was at Forest and Bird and Madeleine at the Environmental Defence Society. We were often involved in the same cases, and working for these NGOs meant we were natural allies, so we were already used to providing collegial support to each other.

I set up as a barrister in 2019 so when Madeleine was looking to make a move last year and approached me there was no question about her joining me. Specialising in environmental and resource management law means we are often called on to work all over the country so it doesn’t really matter where we’re based.

Madeleine: We have a very similar work ethic so it’s been pretty natural sharing the load. Being able to trust the other person is essential when we’re not physically together. But we feel really comfortable being open and honest with each other. A lot of people don’t even know where we are based!

How does technology help you?

Sally: I’ve been working remotely since 2010 so I’m used to using remote systems. When I first started at Forest and Bird I worked from Nelson, despite the office being in Wellington.

For me it’s been important to have a physical office away from my home. This was especially important when my children were young, I wanted to maintain the separation of work and home. Everything else is just a computer system really.

Sally Gepp

All our systems are cloud-based software, such as the programmes we use for billing and document storage. We also use Microsoft Teams or Zoom to keep in touch on a daily basis and for more social chats.

It’s been interesting to see the rise in remote chambers like Kate Sheppard Chambers in Wellington. With that set up you get the additional benefits of having that support from a chambers without having to be physically in the building.

Does it get lonely?

Madeleine: We check in with each other on a daily basis, in fact it often feels like she’s right here with me given how easy it is to connect digitally.

We’re also lucky because the type of law we do is very team based. We’re almost always working with technical experts and other parties on cases so we’re not locked in a room trawling through documents all the time. Generally during litigation proceedings you constantly have a team around you.

I had meant to get an office but that’s been really challenging with Covid-19. I’m generally happy working wherever but around 100 days at home during the current lockdown with no other place to go has been very challenging. I will be looking for office space once Covid-19 restrictions relax.

Covid-19 has also meant that Sally and I haven’t managed to catch up in person as much as we would have liked to. We had one great “walking meeting” at Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary in Wellington, but other than that it’s all been remote. We catch-up through a combination of scheduled meetings with a purpose but then also just through those casual conversations where you pick up the phone to check something. It’s actually not that different from being in a physical office and turning to the person next to you to ask a question.

What are some of the challenges from working remotely?

Sally: This is really a reflection on modern working rather than an experience unique to our working situation, but I find it hard getting emails from early in the morning until late at night. I think society in general is due a reckoning: having embraced flexible working, there are some real drawbacks that we need to be aware of.

The 40-hour working week was a massive step forward for labour rights and for working parents’ relationship with their families, but it’s been thrown aside to some extent. That’s inevitable sometimes due to the nature of our work, but it is becoming the norm to be available at any time. Managing the churn of email correspondence is a drain on so many of us.

Madeleine: It has been a challenge for me being strict about work hours as I pick my daughter up from day care each day at 3pm. I’ve been strict with myself about not working during that time when I’m with her. But that comes with the pressure later when the emails have piled up.

Madeleine Wright

Being really clear about the boundaries has been good for me and I think remote working does make it easier to have a work life balance with young children.

Tell us more about the work you do.

Madeleine: It’s a mix of litigation work and policy advocacy in resource management and environmental law. Resource management law is broad in nature so we end of up covering a lot of different aspects.

I really enjoy the variety. I find it very rewarding to be able to have a positive impact on the environment through development, as well as through protection of certain areas or values. Generally, people are drawn to this area because they care about the outcomes for our land, freshwater bodies and oceans.

Sally: Working in this area means we often work for environmental NGOs. But we also work with consent applicants, who generally are wanting to achieve an outcome that is environmentally robust, maintains social licence and builds relationships with tangata whenua. That is just as important, challenging and rewarding.

Why did you decide to go into the law?

Madeleine: Reading and writing were always strong interests for me when I was going through my education. People often think of law as a boring churn through endless pieces of paper, but I’ve found you get to be creative through problem solving.

My family has a strong ethos of giving back so I wanted to find a career that would allow me to do that in my own way. I have a real passion for the environment as everything that I love doing involves being outdoors.

I think about the future generations ahead of us who won’t be able to enjoy the outdoors like we can unless society makes careful and sustainable decisions about how and when we use natural resources. I feel this even more now that I have a daughter.

Sally: I was attracted to law because I love languages and the structure and the way in which language can be incredibly powerful. I knew I wanted to work in an area that involved using and analysing language. I was also a baby eco-warrior, giving 50 cents of pocket money to Greenpeace when I was a child, so some kind of environmental job was kind of inevitable!

Like Madeleine I really want to contribute to the world being a better place for those who come after us, including my own kids.

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