According to New Zealand Law Society data, the vast majority of lawyers practice in our three major cities. And that is no surprise – almost all of our major firms base their practices out of them and the vast majority of work occurs in them.
Summer clerks flood to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington in the hopes of nabbing that full time position when they finish studying.
But for some, the draw of the bright lights isn’t everything. We speak with new lawyer Stephanie-Anne Ross who graduated in 2021 with her Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts from the University of Otago and instead of packing her bags and heading north, she went three hours west to Queenstown.
“Beginning the search for a graduate position in the legal industry is a big undertaking. The constant barrage of application deadlines being promoted by universities, the competition from your peers, and the fear of failure can be a recipe for many sleepless nights,” Steph says.
“However, that was not my experience. While many of my peers were looking to big city lights in their job search, I was looking to my home region of Otago for a graduate position that was the right fit for me. That’s how I found my now employer, RVG Law based in Queenstown.”
Growing up in Balclutha and attending South Otago High School, Steph really valued the opportunity to live and work close to family and the community she loves. She also feels she has had greater experience earlier in her career from being in a small, more regional practice.
“Living and working in a regional centre as a solicitor provides many opportunities both inside and outside the workplace, but also a unique set of challenges.”
Connectivity with other new professionals is one hurdle that exists, even in Queenstown.
“One of the challenges of working in a regional centre is the smaller population of young people in comparison to a major city. While studying at university we are spoilt for choice, being surrounded by young like-minded people who are keen to strike up friendships and have the spare time to socialise regularly.”
“Transitioning from university to working as a young professional changes your priorities and the amount of dispensable time you have outside of working hours. Not only this, but in a regional centre the pool of people your age is a lot smaller than it is on a university campus.”
She has some helpful advice for those who might be struggling to put their roots down in regional New Zealand.
“Establishing yourself with a social network can be very challenging, but this can be countered by joining young professionals groups, law society groups, social sports teams or other groups and clubs. The key to developing a positive and engaging environment in a smaller centre is immersing yourself amongst the locals and your peers to build connections and friendships.”
The ‘real’ first year
Starting your professional career outside university is a daunting and challenging period of time. While law school teaches you critical thinking skills and the fundamental mechanics of the law, the practical elements of the job are taught in the workplace.
“In the beginning, you do not know, what you do not know about practising law. This is a significant barrier to overcome as you start from what feels like square one once again, despite five years of studying,” Steph says.
“The direct contact with partners and other solicitors as you navigate learning on the job is invaluable and is one of the best parts of the small firm culture. Everyone is a student at some point, and the time invested in junior solicitors’ professional development by more experienced solicitors provides a foundation to the formative years of a graduates’ legal career.”
Experience and exposure
For many entering the legal profession, the initial years can feel a little bit like churning butter. The excitement of the law and the opportunities young practitioners hear about can seem distant at first, particularly in larger firms where progression can take time. However, Steph notes that her experience and involvement in a regional firm has given her more opportunity to get into the thick of it earlier.
“Beginning your professional career can feel like getting dropped in the deep end in many ways, but this is a good way to work out how you see your legal career developing”.
“My experience working in a small law firm is that you get a high level of exposure to a variety of work in the early stages of your career that helps build your understanding of practising law. This allows you to quickly work out what areas spark your interest, what work you enjoy and what work you want to do more of.”
Some of my peers at larger firms speak about being “pigeon-holed” into a particular field in the early stages of their career without getting the opportunity to cut their teeth and figure out what aspects of law they would like to pursue a career in.
“When you are finding your feet in the “real world” having the opportunity to see areas of law in practice rather than in course materials or lecture slides is the best way to figure out the area that is the best fit for you.”
The work life balance
A recent survey done by the National New Lawyers Group identified burnout and welfare critical concerns of our next batch of practitioners. Steph thinks it is important early on to ensure you maintain a good work-life balance and remember what is important in life.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the “rat race” was glamourised in many corporate industries and new graduates were resigned to “overworking” being a necessary part of starting a career in the legal industry.”
“But if there is one positive that has come out of the pandemic it is the newfound desire and respect for work life balance.”
There are always challenges regardless of the size of the law firm you work at, or the location it is in, but my first year working in the legal profession has been a positive introduction to the industry that I am eager to continue
“In a regional centre, especially like Queenstown, the work life balance is second to none. The rush hour commute is minimal, there is a true sense of community, and the pace of life is generally a bit slower compared to the hustle and bustle in major cities. While you may not place a huge emphasis on the hours you spend outside work when you are applying for a job, living somewhere that provides a lifestyle makes any job a lot more satisfying.”
So why regional New Zealand? Is regional New Zealand the place for you? One thing Steph highlights is all soon-to-be-graduands should keep an open mind about what their future holds.
“Reflecting on the past year or so living and working in Queenstown, I have no regrets about choosing to come to a small firm in a regional centre. What this past year has taught me is that finding a law firm that aligns with your professional goals and value set is integral to enjoying working in the legal industry.
“There are always challenges regardless of the size of the law firm you work at, or the location it is in, but my first year working in the legal profession has been a positive introduction to the industry that I am eager to continue.”
“My advice to those seeking a job as a law graduate is, while the allure of the big city atmosphere is tempting, I say give the regional centres a chance. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you find.”