From figure skating through forensic science to health and safety – one lawyer’s unusual career path

Law was not the first career of WorkSafe New Zealand Principal Legal Advisor Litigation, and ADLS Health & Safety Committee member, Sue Petricevic.

Sue Petrivevic

Science was her first love – she began her working life as a scientist testing water quality, progressed to testing wine for export, then moved to forensic work with a particular specialisation in drugs analysis, trace DNA research and analysis, crime scene investigation and bloodstain pattern analysis. She jokes that it was only natural that her “water to wine to drugs to violent crime” upward progression would lead her to some of the grittier aspects of her forensic career and ultimately (as a lawyer), on to criminal prosecutions.

While spending your days analysing blood patterns and DNA may sound rather emotionally draining, Ms Petricevic says that, as with any job, forensic work requires you to concentrate on the task at hand, whether it be collecting samples, or conducting the necessary analysis. “I learnt not to dwell on the violence that had led to a particular crime scene, rather to concentrate on why I was there which was to help with the present situation. Invariably, that meant being very analytical and concentrating on what needed to be done to make my best contribution.”

She also stresses that being a forensic scientist is not as glamourous as it looks on TV – “I only wish it were.” However, although the plethora of crime dramas on the box nowadays can be “a bit aspirational”, she says that from what she has seen, a lot of it is not as far-fetched as you might think. “While they extend somewhat beyond what is currently possible, there is perhaps a not too distant reality for the techniques they’re showcasing.”

So how did the scientist become a lawyer? “I was regularly appearing in court as an expert witness and developed an interest in the legal process. I thought that it would be good for me in that capacity to have a better understanding of the law. So, I did a few papers at Auckland part-time, got hooked and ended up pursuing it the whole way through. There are very few forensic scientists who have converted to law – even internationally there are only a few of us around.”

After graduating, Ms Petricevic found a home at Meredith Connell, as a Crown Prosecutor and spent almost eight years doing criminal prosecution work. Her prior experience in DNA profiling and crime scene work was an obvious asset, particularly when it came to DNA and sexual assault cases. “My forensic science background helped me to analyse experts’ reports and qualifications quickly, examine expert witnesses in court and present the intricacies of complex scientific evidence to juries,” she says.

Ms Petricevic seized on a secondment to New Zealand Customs, where she could also apply her chemistry and forensic skills to drug importation and customs prosecutions, before moving to her current role at WorkSafe where she oversees and prosecutes cases under the health and safety legislation. She has been there for three and a half years, joining shortly after WorkSafe came into being in the wake of the inquiries and commissions set up in response to the Pike River Mining disaster.

“WorkSafe was a new entity and an exciting place to join with a fantastic new legal team. This is a fast-moving environment. Apart from hitting the ground running, we have had significant new health and safety legislation with the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, commencing in April 2016. WorkSafe’s mandate to assist government in reducing serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace (by at least 25% by 2020) means looking at health and safety interventions by engaging with and educating businesses, and sometimes taking enforcement action by prosecution through the courts. Workplace safety continues to be a major focus, along with workplace health such as reducing occupational illness and disease.”

While her move to WorkSafe may initially seem like somewhat of a departure career-wise, progressing into a supervisory role adds different challenges and skills. Ms Petricevic says that she is still essentially doing criminal work, and all her past experience comes into play as prosecutions tend to be quite factually complex with a focus on expert evidence.

“For example, we might be looking at a structure that has collapsed on a construction site, involving expert evidence as to how the structure in question has been built or maintained. Or, if it is an occupational health issue, we may look at medical evidence such as the risks of exposure to a substance, how to manage that, and how a particular illness could occur.”

Ms Petricevic relishes the fact that each day is different and each case brings its own complexities. “In addition, there are the challenges of working in the wider government environment, giving advice as in-house counsel as well as prosecution/ enforcement work.”

“I enjoy the education/engagement aspect to this role. When I am fortunate enough to speak at conferences, it is very heartening to see health and safety being recognised as being so important to New Zealand. Health and safety processes in businesses need to be led from the top down, but with good worker engagement to identify and reduce risks.”

Outside of work, her lifelong passion for figure skating consumes much of her free time. A former figure skater herself, she has for many years now been qualified as an Olympic-level ice figure skating judge and travels the world judging international competitions (although not the Olympics yet!). Although figure skating is reasonably popular in New Zealand, it often goes under the radar as it is rarely televised. “Being able to do something with the more artistic side of my brain and enjoy this beautiful sport is a nice contrast to the analytical nature of legal practice,” she says.

Combining skating and law, Ms Petricevic became an elected member of the International Skating Union’s (ISU) disciplinary commission, the body responsible for adjudicating breaches in relation to ice-skating competitors and officials in ISU activities worldwide. Together with four other lawyers, each from a different country, she hears and decides complaints on drug violations, code of ethics breaches, specific breaches of the ISU statutes and other sports law-related matters. In addition, she enjoys the opportunity to bring her legal background to bear on the sport that she loves and to engage in different kinds of legal issues across a number of different jurisdictions.

Ms Petricevic has appreciated the chance to sit on ADLS’ recently established Health & Safety Law Committee as a representative of the regulator. “It’s been fantastic to be involved with this Committee, especially with the new legislation coming in and the complexity of health and safety cases. I particularly enjoy working with defence counsel, rather than just meeting in court or over cases. Ultimately, we are all working together on the same problems and bring something valuable and unique to the table.”

“I have had a very interesting career so far, it has been very diverse and I’ve enjoyed every part of it. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such brilliant scientists and lawyers. And I still have so much more to do,” she says.

“You don’t really think about how your skills might be complementary but it is interesting how the different strands in your personal and professional life can come together. I recommend looking out for the opportunities that are hiding in front of you and taking them on. Once you spot them, even more opportunities appear. This is what makes law such an interesting profession.” 

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