LawNews speaks to AWLA President Janna McGuigan

“Being a lawyer is a privileged position and it’s important to give back,” says AWLA’s President for 2017, Janna McGuigan, who took on the role of President after three years on the organisation’s Executive and one as Vice- President.

Janna Mcguigan

And giving back is certainly what she aims to do – aside from her busy practice as a barrister at Auckland’s Bankside Chambers and raising her young family, she is committed to helping AWLA provide women lawyers with the kind of support she has always valued and to promoting its theme for the year, “Know Your Worth”.

Ms McGuigan was admitted to the bar in 2008 and graduated from the University of Canterbury with a BA/LLB (First Class Hons). After graduating, she spent two years as a Judge’s Clerk at the Supreme Court, before working in the litigation team at Russell McVeagh in Wellington. In 2011, she completed her LLM as a Grotius Fellow at the University of Michigan. On her return to New Zealand, Ms McGuigan joined Wilson Harle, a boutique civil and commercial litigation firm in Auckland. She made the move to the independent bar at the beginning of this year.

Unlike many practitioners, Ms McGuigan “didn’t grow up in a family of lawyers”. “But my strongest subjects at high school were English and history and I liked debating, so my teachers encouraged me to try law. By my second year at law school, I found that I loved it – I developed a passion for the law and it definitely felt like the right fit for me.”

As a student, and in what must have been good training for her future as an advocate (whether for her clients or for AWLA’s agenda of change), Ms McGuigan threw herself into whatever extracurricular activities were going. She was on the executive of the University of Canterbury Law Students’ Association and represented New Zealand at international mooting competitions, including the Commonwealth mooting competition (London) and the Philip C Jessup (Washington DC).

Ms McGuigan was on parental leave last year when she joined Bankside Chambers. She took over the room vacated by the Hon Justice Edwards when she was appointed to the Bench. Since law school, Ms McGuigan has aimed to join the independent Bar. She also cites her experience clerking at the Supreme Court, where she worked for the Hon Justice Tipping, as giving direction to her future career. “Working closely with the Judges, attending all Supreme Court hearings for two years and seeing the finest advocates in the country putting their cases to the Bench was inspiring. It gave me a love of advocacy and the desire to move to the Bar myself one day.”

For Ms McGuigan, the attractiveness of the Bar is achieving independence while remaining a fierce advocate for her clients. She takes on all manner of civil and commercial litigation work, and has a particular specialty in trust and professional duties law.

Ms McGuigan has two small children aged three and one. “Each day is different. You do have to be organised and to have a great support network,” she says of the demands of balancing work and life. In Ms McGuigan’s case, she and her lawyer-husband have split responsibilities for the household and caring for the children down the middle. “My husband and I are both equally involved with our children and we have a fantastic nanny – it is not all on me, and that helps keep the wheels on track.”

She says that while she hates the term “split shifting”, the approach of focusing on work during work time and on family during family time does work well for her. “When I’m in the office during the day, I am working, and when I go home to the kids, I am with them. Then, when they’re in bed, I can continue to work if I need to. I try to avoid working weekends unless I’m in trial – I’m quite strong on that and I think it is important to just be present with the kids when we’re together.”

“There is so much pressure on lawyers to be constantly available, but I think that, as a working parent, you need to get smarter about how you deal with that pressure and what can be done to make technology work for you. I make sure that I keep on top of each of my briefs and that I am organised well in advance of court deadlines, but I’m upfront with clients in advance and am not afraid to push back on timeframes if they are unrealistic. I also try not to check my phone when I am not supposed to be working, unless I know that I have time to respond to any pressing emails.”

Ms McGuigan’s involvement with AWLA began when she came to Auckland around five and a half years ago. With a true “giving back” attitude, she joined its Council almost immediately. “I had been involved in the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association and decided that I wanted to help organise events that women could get something out of.”

“But as I became more involved, I realised AWLA was about much more than events. I was struck by how strong an advocate it is for women in the law – it’s a real platform for promoting change and it’s that side of it that I enjoy most.”

It is clear that Ms McGuigan wants to go beyond mere talk in helping women lawyers achieve their goals. She notes the surprise felt by parts of the profession when the 2014 AWLA/AUT report on women’s career progression in Auckland firms revealed that women practitioners are no different from men in wanting to achieve promotion. But she is not content to accept the “feelings of hopelessness” some respondents identified about whether anything would ever change. “It is that kind of attitude that AWLA has taken upon itself to change, and we think there are many ways to address this.”

AWLA’s chosen theme for 2017 reflects this. “We want women to know their own worth. We want them to value themselves, and the profession as a whole to value women for what they add. We hope to get women thinking about how they practise and to assist law firms to create more opportunities for women.”

“Matters such as the gender pay gap can begin quite early in a woman’s career. We want to help women gain the tools to know what they’re worth in the market and how best to negotiate and advocate for themselves, whether for pay or arrangements such as flexible working. Some firms have clauses in their employment agreements which prohibit solicitors from talking amongst themselves about how much they get paid. This lack of transparency can allow the gender pay gap, or the perception of a gender pay gap, to flourish.”

(For more on pay negotiation, see the review of AWLA’s recent workshop in LawNews Issue 23, 14 July 2017.)

Another key issue is that of equitable briefing, something on which AWLA is working with the New Zealand Bar Association. AWLA wants to encourage lawyers who are recommending a number of barristers to clients to include a woman’s name in the mix. “Even if she is not selected, it’s about getting diverse options on the table and getting rid of unconscious biases.”

“We also want to encourage more women barristers to put themselves forward as experts in areas where they tend to be underrepresented, such as commercial litigation. We want to help women make more connections with instructing solicitors and think about different ways of competing.”’

Ms McGuigan also wants to tackle concerns that lawyers (whether women or men) working flexibly are seen as not taking the job seriously, or that they might miss out on partnership. “We think that risks firms losing out on excellent candidates for partnership,” she says.

“We’re encouraging firms to implement ‘core hours’ arrangements, whereby people have to be in the office between 10 and 3 but can make up the rest of their hours around those core times. Excuses like ‘clients won’t like it’ aren’t good enough – in my experience, a lot of clients are parents themselves and they do understand, and modern technology can easily enable people to work from home offices.”

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