New silks tread a mixture of pathways to the top

LawNews recently had the opportunity to attend an AWLA hosted evening with three of New Zealand’s recently appointed women Queen’s Counsel – Suzanne Robertson QC, Rachael Reed QC and Jenny Cooper QC.

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The motivation for the event was to hear from women barristers working in practice areas in which women may have traditionally been underrepresented. Taking the form of a panel discussion, the evening was chaired by Russell McVeagh partner Sarah Keene, who put a series of questions to the silks about their career progression, dealing with bias, and how to manage having a family while at the bar.

The audience appreciated the candour of the three panellists, who heartened attendees with down-to-earth advice and some often surprising anecdotes about the twists and turns they have experienced along the road to success.

Suzanne Robertson QC confessed that her path to becoming a QC “looks like a seismograph during an earthquake”, encompassing stints at Chapman Tripp and Gaze Burt, time overseas, university lecturing and around seven years off to focus on her family. A Masters’ degree and an invitation to join Bankside Chambers in 2007 changed that, and she realised that being a barrister was “[her] place in the law”.

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Rachael Reed QC had to strive against less-than-enthusiastic responses to some of her career moves, but pursued her own way nonetheless. After a number of years at Chapman Tripp, a love of criminal law prompted a move to the Serious Fraud Office (“That’s a very strange move, Rachael,” she was told). Her instincts paid off as she got the chance to work with top QCs and was subsequently offered a job at Meredith Connell. She also worked overseas before starting a family and then returning home to Meredith Connell again. Ultimately, she “took the next step” of going to the bar, a move which she credits with giving her “enormous opportunities that [she] wouldn’t have otherwise had”.

Jenny Cooper QC says that she was “never totally convinced [she] wanted to be a lawyer”, and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford conveniently enabled her to “defer thinking about serious issues for three years”. On a whim, she took the civil service entrance exam and was accepted into the Foreign Office, which “sounded much more glamourous than the law” (but wasn’t).

Eventually, she returned to New Zealand and joined Bell Gully. “I really loved it,” she says, and wondered why she had not gone straight into law in the first place. She threw herself into the challenge of making partner and, once that was achieved, began looking around for the next challenge – a move to the bar. She describes Shortland Chambers as “quite a different working environment to a firm – it is free of some of the administrative constraints”. “There are a lot of ways to practise the law and be successful. If a particular working environment is not working for you, think about a different way of doing it,” she suggested.

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Sarah Keene then asked the panel whether they still think women face barriers to advancement in the law given their ongoing underrepresentation at senior levels, despite graduating in greater numbers than men. She also asked whether the panellists have encountered conscious or unconscious biases in their careers.

“I was admitted in 1995 and I find it perplexing that my cohort has failed to progress in significant numbers,” said Ms Cooper QC. “The profession is making a huge effort to address this, but it has only been happening in a meaningful way relatively recently.” Although she attributes some of this to unconscious bias (which is a “trendy word” but “nevertheless descriptive of the problem”), she also cautions against underestimating the extent to which women discriminate against each other and against themselves.

Ms Robertson QC noted that there are a lot of young women lawyers who suffer from self-doubt but, in reality, their ability often outstrips their confidence. “The question is how we deal with it. It may not be all negative – it can mean we prepare really well and often perform better as a result. In the end, you have to put yourself out there, take a deep breath and have a go.” Ms Reed QC agreed that a big part of it is presenting with confidence, thus instilling others with confidence in your ability. “Use it to your advantage – I am still nervous when I go into court but I don’t want to lose that little bit of self-doubt – it makes me do a better job.”

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Ms Reed QC said that she has been on the receiving end of unconscious bias. “I feel I have had to justify myself more to some clients, but I don’t let it rock me. I outline my experience without overstating it, and let them know that I have the ability to deal with their case.” By contrast, Ms Robertson QC says she has found male instructing solicitors and male QCs very supportive. She also encouraged those in the room – as future law firm partners and in-house counsel making appointments and giving instructions – to take responsibility for changing any such biases.

Ms Cooper QC said that while no one wants to achieve something because of a quota, she personally thinks there is merit in having targets for equitable briefing and appointing women partners. “No one is going to be instructed unless they deserve it, but targets provide accountability and the motivation to change – it becomes self-reinforcing over time.”

As for the perennial challenge of how to combine work and family obligations, all three agreed that being at the bar has given them greater flexibility to work when and how best suits them, and encouraged more women to come to the bar.

“I find it a lot easier not to have to be accountable to anyone for the hours I work – I get to manage how I’ll meet my clients’ expectations,” said Ms Reed QC. “On the other hand, there is just you – you might need to bring in additional support (i.e. junior barristers), and there are other economic questions, such as chambers fees and no maternity leave.”

“I don’t report to anyone,” says Ms Robertson QC. “I can create my own day – the flexibility of the bar suits mothers.” “The beauty of the bar is that you can choose your own timetable. It is extremely liberating,” agrees Ms Cooper QC.

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