Upholding the “golden threads” of the law
Law News recently had the opportunity to attend the University of Auckland Law School’s Law Student Awards evening on Wednesday 11 May 2016. It was an insightful glimpse into the numbers of talented young lawyers who will be joining the ranks of the profession in the near future, with the top prize of the evening (the Auckland District Law Society Inc’s Prize for the top law undergraduate) being awarded to Finn Lowery (who also received a Faculty of Law Dean’s Academic Excellence Award and a Senior Scholar Award).
As the prizes were handed out, it was apparent that women were outnumbering men amongst the prize winners, prompting Dean Andrew Stockley to encourage the men to “catch up”.
“As I’m looking at the line-up of prize winners, there should be a revolution in terms of female lawyers to come,” he quipped.
Dean Stockley commended those who had been involved in student leadership and moots throughout the year, with several of the mooting teams winning at national level and placing highly internationally, including at the Australia and New Zealand Air Law Moot Competition and Sarin International Air Law Moot Competition, the ICC International Commercial Mediation Competition, and the Willem C Vis Commercial Arbitration Moot.
Guest speaker and alumna the Hon Justice Winkelmann was certainly an inspirational example of “where a law degree from the University of Auckland can take you” for the assembled students and graduates. While her remarks were addressed to them “as the future leaders of the profession, as that is what you surely are”, she hoped that listeners already in practice might pick up a thing or two as well!
In Justice Winkelmann’s view (one with which we no doubt all agree), it is of utmost importance that the profession is “made up of people with moral integrity”. Law is “an exciting career”, her Honour said, and there are “plenty of opportunities to stretch your mind, test your moral fibre and figure out who you are”.
However, young lawyers need to ask themselves this question:
“Is practising the law going to be just about making a living for you, or do you understand the power and the beauty of the law – do you want to contribute to society?”
Justice Winkelmann spoke about the “golden threads” that run through and underpin the legal system – the principle of fairness for everyone, the presumption of innocence, the need to prevent abuses of power and work to achieve just outcomes for all, and the importance of having the courage of your convictions. Graduates need to keep all of these in sight when confronted with the demands of clients and billable hours.
The legal profession “plays a most important role in our democracy”, said Justice Winkelmann, and lawyers have a vital responsibility as guardians of the rule of law, which is the “bedrock on which New Zealand society is built” and which “should resound throughout your career”. We all have a role to play in setting standards for the profession, her Honour said, “whether you are a conveyancer, a family lawyer, a lawyer getting paid legal aid fees or a QC practising on Shortland Street”.
Justice Winkelmann placed on the shoulders of the new graduates a “mantel” to help develop New Zealand’s unique laws and to uphold these “golden threads”. She touched on the concept of “Lex Aotearoa”, saying that the fish that Maui pulled out of the ocean that became our land of Aotearoa “has always swum in its own legal waters”.
Her Honour also threw down several challenges to those about to embark upon their professional legal careers. The first harked back to the topic of her well-known 2014 “access to justice” lecture, and she urged the legal profession (including the upcoming youngsters) to take responsibility for helping to address financial and other obstacles to access to justice.
Some of Justice Winkelmann’s practical suggestions on how to be part of this included joining a working group on access to justice, volunteering at a local community law centre, and even (“once you feel brave enough”) telling your employers that you would like to do some lower value work.
“You will get into court more often, rather than spending all your time doing electronic discovery, and you will be doing something that feels like it matters – it will be important to your client and you may even change a life,” her Honour said.
Another challenge issued by her Honour was to make this profession “fit for all its members”. While we will shortly reach the point when more than half of the practising lawyers in New Zealand are women, women still remain underrepresented in the senior judiciary and in partnership, with many of the best and brightest not being brought through to leadership roles.
Justice Winkelmann said that in spite of no lack of desire to appoint women to top roles, retaining women within the profession until they have sufficient experience to be appointed to these kinds of roles can be difficult – a problem which is complicated by how the profession traditionally operates for parents of young children.
Her Honour went on to suggest a “radical prescription” – that law firms consider making their lawyers up to partner younger – a step which she sees as a sensible way of retaining talent. “I was made a partner in my twenties,” her Honour said, noting that it was “much easier” to combine work and family when you have a team of people under you and the financial resources to make it viable. She also advocated a more equal division of responsibility for looking after the children (to cheers from the audience).
Justice Winkelmann concluded by encouraging the young lawyers in the room to start having conversations with their employers early on about their legal aspirations and what they want for their careers. “Don’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it for you – fight to make it work for you,” her Honour said. “It would be great if, in 30 years’ time, it was one of you in this spot.”