“Giving the door a push” – career advice from Justice Christine Gordon

You wouldn’t think it when you see where she is now, but the Hon Justice Christine Gordon says she has had a “zig zag” career.

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For someone whose career has included highlights such as being the first female partner at Meredith Connell, working as Public Prosecutor for the Pitcairn Islands, appearing before the Privy Council, and her appointment to the High Court Bench, it may be surprising to learn that her journey did not always follow a “straight line”.

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Justice Gordon was the guest speaker at the Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association (AWLA) President’s Function for 2018, which ADLS recently hosted. Her Honour treated those present to some valuable career advice, and also spoke about how to be an “agent of change” (as per AWLA’s chosen theme for 2018, introduced by new President, Alicia Murray) in taking charge of one’s own career path.

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A long-time member of AWLA, Justice Gordon remembers thinking the organisation was “doing great things” in its early days in addressing the lack of representation of women at senior levels of the profession, but wondered whether there would be much left for it to do after a few years. “Sadly, it seems I was mistaken,” her Honour noted.

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As she talked about her career progression, Justice Gordon stressed that there is “no one size fits all”, and that the path to success can look different for everyone. Her own journey took an early diversion into the world of science and pharmaceutical studies, before she cross-credited to a BA in History. However, she sees this as an advantage rather than otherwise, and her understanding of chemistry would later come in useful in criminal prosecutions.

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An OE and a teaching stint followed, before she decided to “get serious about her career”. It was only then that the possibility of pursuing legal studies crossed her mind, through conversations with a lawyer who specialised in maritime law. So, at age 28, she went to law school, and realised quite soon that she “absolutely loved the law”.

Her first job in practice involved a mix of property, tax and town planning – she recommends not trying to specialise too early on in your career. “If you can get a broader knowledge of a wide range of legal practice areas early on, it can assist you in becoming a better lawyer.”

A move to the Hong Kong prosecution service appealed, but required her to get some home-grown criminal prosecution experience at Meredith Connell under her belt first. Although initially finding it “really demanding” to run her own files, she quickly adapted to having to take greater responsibility for decisions and files and making judgement calls “on her feet” while in court.

Justice Gordon says that she was thankful for the chance “to see some superb advocates in action”, and came to be given increasing responsibility for leading witnesses, conducting cross-examinations, and giving the opening address. “I don’t recall asking to take on more responsibility – rather, it was something that was expected of me,” she mused. “But for some, opportunities to take on more responsibility may not be offered, in which case I would suggest you go on the front foot and ask.” She also strongly recommended finding a mentor who is interested in your career development.

Justice Gordon was open about the trepidation she felt when making the leap from supporting counsel to leading a case, and considers that this can be where “imposter syndrome” sets in.

“But, if someone gives you an opportunity, it is because they think you can do it and they have confidence in you. It’s just a matter of doing it. And that’s what I did – I took a deep breath and jumped in. Of course, you make mistakes along the way, but the trick is not to make the same mistake twice – you learn from it and move on.”

Justice Gordon concluded with a gloss on a quote from singer Carole King, who remarked, “You’ve just got to persevere – one day, the door will open and you need to be there when it does.” Justice Gordon agrees, but would add, “You can’t just rely on the door opening – sometimes you need to be there giving it a push.”

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