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Life on the Inside: Different Areas of Legal Practice


David Turner - Barrister, Stout Street Chambers, Wellington:

Litigation certainly isn't for everyone, but in some ways it is where much of the drama of the law comes from - the contest of ideas and of opponents; the testing of ingenious legal arguments before the courts; the high stakes where a person's liberty, rights or large sums of money are at stake.

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the variety of the work. Barristers are still generalists at heart and therefore can end up working across a wide range of legal fields.

One day you might be doing something in insurance law, the next day tax law, the following day public law. This not only keeps things interesting but also ensures you're constantly learning new things.

You have the opportunity to take part in the court processes and see the result of your hard work publicly demonstrated at a court hearing. The fact that you are representing the interests of your client against another generates excitement as well, especially if you win!

As a junior barrister, I spend much of my time on legal research - reading cases and statutes, delving deep into particular legal fields across jurisdictions and writing advisory opinions.

The more experienced you become, the more you will find yourself working independently and dealing directly with clients, offering them first-hand advice.

Often it involves learning a lot about your client's fields of expertise. Particularly with commercial clients, you have to become well versed in the details of their industries if you hope to represent them properly.

As with all areas of the law, working as a barrister can be intellectually challenging. It's possible to spend hours trying to find the answer to an obscure point of law. These kinds of instances are the exception - mostly the work is rewarding and challenging in a good way.

Banking and Finance Law

Chantelle Stirling - Solicitor, Buddle Findlay, Wellington:

We assist clients by advising them on matters important to them and their business; we help our clients comply with the law, and we negotiate the terms of their transactions or deals.

Although time pressure and longer hours are inevitable when there is a lot of work on, you gain great experience and knowledge over a short period of time.

A typical day could involve on working on drafting an agreement or a disclosure document for a bank client, a lunchtime seminar provided by Buddle Findlay, client meetings with a Senior Associate and researching any legal issues that come about from that meeting.

I enjoy client interaction and providing solutions to our clients by thinking both legally, commercially, and "outside of the box"; working with like-minded, intelligent people (both clients and colleagues); the challenge of the work - this work is definitely not easy; and fun client events and networking.

Commercial Law

Nick Kovacevich - Senior Solicitor, Buddle Findlay, Auckland:

I enjoy helping clients do business and achieve their commercial objectives. As a transactional lawyer, I also like that both sides to a deal often work together to get a good outcome, rather than things being purely adversarial.

I assist people and entities in buying and selling businesses and shares, and running their companies and businesses in a legally compliant way. The job requires strong written and verbal communication skills, good attention to detail, and a commercial acumen and interest in business.

While I enjoy the work very much, working in a competitive service industry means that at times there can be quite long hours involved when clients need documents or advice turned around in short timeframes. My work mainly comprises drafting and negotiating commercial documents. I look after sale and purchase and subscription agreements, shareholders' agreements and company constitutions, supply and procurement agreements and service contracts.

I also prepare corporate documentation so that companies can manage their affairs in compliance with the Companies Act 1993, and write advice for clients on wide-ranging commercial matters, including in relation to the Securities Act 1978, Takeovers Code and NZX Listing Rules.

Another large part of my duties is to carry out due diligence on companies in connection with transactions. This involves reviewing contracts and other commercial documents, and writing legal due diligence reports, which advise the client of the key issues that are relevant to their proposed purchase and/or sale of a company.

Criminal Law

Jessica Herd - Criminal Lawyer, Zindels, Nelson:

As a criminal lawyer, it is rewarding being able to defend those who don't have the right tools to defend themselves.

I help my clients to negotiate their way through the court system and advise them of their best options, be that to plead guilty, or to mount the best defence possible for them. I give them their options so that they understand what is happening to them and I help them follow through whichever course it is they choose to take once they are fully informed.

Every case throws up new challenges in criminal law. It is very factually dependent and no two clients or cases are the same. Working in the criminal field has really opened my eyes and changed my perspective on many things.

In criminal law, you learn that just because someone makes mistakes doesn't make them an inherently bad person.

Although I have only been practising for under a year, I have made several defended (not routine) Court appearances and will soon take on certain criminal cases on my own.

At present most of the hearings I do revolve around petty crimes such as defending driving offences, low level violence charges and small time drugs charges. You have to start somewhere, and I enjoy doing these types of hearings as to me, it is still all new and, believe it or not, a great experience.

Being resilient is important when working in criminal law. You hear some things which aren't pleasant, and you meet some people that you might not normally meet. You have to be able to remain non-judgmental and empathetic. I think that can be difficult at times.

The field also involves a lot of legal research and drafting documents. I spend a lot of time dealing with emails and phone calls from (often needy) clients.

As a criminal lawyer, you have to remember you are seeing people at their worst. For many, it is a stressful time in their lives. You have to reassure clients and explain to them the processes and what is happening to them, as many don't understand.

Court is very formal and it can be quite intimidating for people who haven't experienced it before, and even for those who have. I appear in court for my clients, liase with police on their files, interview the clients and spend time talking to them and building up a rapport with them.

Environmental Law

Greg Severinsen - Environmental Lawyer, Simpson Grierson, Wellington:

An environmental lawyer gives advice and represents a wide variety of people in council hearings and in court on a broad range of environmental issues. These might not always be the obvious things that come to mind, like saving the rainforest or crusading against smokestack factories; it is a broader subject area than you might think.

In New Zealand, environmental lawyers often get involved when people simply want to subdivide land, construct buildings or take water from a stream. At the other end of the spectrum environmental lawyers are also involved when councils are deciding the future shape of our cities and countryside.

All of this stuff, small and large, is essential to the future of New Zealand, and environmental lawyers are in the thick of it.

Every week working in environmental law is different. Some weeks I'm involved in drafting documents for the Environment Court or High Court, other weeks I'm attending client meetings, providing advice to clients, writing articles, or attending or presenting seminars. In fact, the only predictable things are the coffee breaks!

The best thing about working in this field is the fact it is really practical. However, sometimes the role can be relatively demanding in terms of hours and stress. But this is almost always outweighed by the fact that what you're doing is extremely interesting and sometimes you find that it's actually quite difficult to put down the pen at the end of the day.

Family Law

Ingrid Squire - Family Lawyer, Gifford Devine, Hastings:

Working in family law is both rewarding and challenging. It is rewarding because your involvement can really help a family and make a difference.

It is very fulfilling to have a direct impact. It has been enough to keep me in the game for 15 years. You get to the end of a case and say: "that was a really good result, the children are safe and are going to be well cared for".

However, family lawyers also have to deal with some tragic cases where it is not possible to get a good result for your client and this is challenging. Sometimes there just isn't a satisfactory resolution and it can be disheartening.

Working in family law is a bit like being a general practitioner in medicine. People never go there and say "look at me, I'm healthy". Clients infrequently come to us because they are happy. For the most part, they don't want to be here and they are pretty unhappy about the situations that have led them here.

Working as a family lawyer involves having great compassion, but also having the ability to stay neutral. You have to find a good balance between being empathetic and not living your clients' lives.

We see some really sad cases and it is easy for young practitioners to fall into a trap of becoming too emotionally involved with their clients. This is not safe practice for you or your client.

Family law is not a "sexy" area of law. It's all about taking instruction, meeting the client, drafting the documents and fronting up in court. There isn't a truck-load of money in it as a lot of my work is through the Ministry of Justice's lawyer for child or legal aid.

Maori and Indigenous Law

Baden Vertongen - Senior Associate and Head of the Maori Legal Team, Kensington Swan, Wellington:

Maori law is something that I always had an interest in. My career has evolved from sciences and fisheries with indigenous aspects, to customary fisheries and then into a commercial team doing Maori issues.

A lot of the issues for Maori now are similar to general legal issues: it's just the context that you apply the law in that becomes different and more specialised. As with dealing with any other client, you need a solid general knowledge base.

I think you need the skills first and if you really want to work in this area, then you apply those skills to the context.

Part of the appeal of working in this field of law is that it is so varied. You can go from meetings on a marae, to meetings in a Minister's office in one day. You can be dealing with Maori land issues from a small block of land to land worth tens of millions of dollars. You are working on resource management issues, to company restructuring and how that fits into a wider post settlement governance group.

Property Law

Andrew Logan - Partner, property law, Mortlock McCormack Law, Christchurch:

I suppose my initial interest in property was based on the fact that for most people, property is the basis of their wealth and the desire to own property is particularly ingrained in the New Zealand psyche. That creates a wide variety of property related matters which I thought would provide a varied "diet" of work.

I enjoy helping people achieve their property goals.

This can range from helping people buy their first home to complicated commercial acquisitions such as our firm's involvement with CERA's acquisition of 7,000 residential properties in Christchurch following from the 2010/2011 earthquakes, or acting for Government departments in managing their property portfolios.

As a partner, I am primarily responsible for ensuring there is enough work attracted to the firm and then delegating and supervising associates, junior lawyers and legal executives who work for the firm. This also means managing client relationships.

What I do involves a wide range of technical knowledge, negotiating skills, seeing the "big picture" about what a client is wanting, and advisory work. This requires the need to be pragmatic and have lots of common sense.


Last updated on the 1st December 2018