“Agent of change” – we speak to this year’s AWLA President

The path to a legal career seems often to take one of two extremes – people either fall into the law somewhat haphazardly, or they have always known they wanted to be a lawyer and nothing else.

Alicia Murray

AWLA’s newly elected President for 2018, Alicia Murray, falls squarely into the latter category. “It sounds cliché I know, but I just always knew what I wanted to be. I don’t want to say that I like arguing as such, but I always liked debating, and the idea of going to court and being able to argue different points of view was appealing. That’s why I’m a litigator,” she muses.

“It was always litigation for me – I love the variety, the different issues. Often, there is no one right answer – you can generally always argue both sides of the coin. It’s that intellectual challenge, problem-solving, strategic aspect of it that I like.”

Ms Murray is Special Counsel at DLA Piper in Auckland, where she specialises in competition and financial markets work. As well as acting in relation to FTA and CCCFA matters, and other regulatory investigations and prosecutions, she sits on the board of the Competition Law & Policy Institute of New Zealand (CLPINZ), and is active in helping to organise its annual conference.

“I enjoy the aspect of looking at policies and developments in New Zealand in this area, as compared with the rest of the world. It is good to step back from clients’ practical issues and look at what’s behind the law from time to time,” she says.

She describes her career as “relatively orthodox”. Summer clerking at Simpson Grierson led to a graduate role, followed by a brief stint in corporate law at Linklaters in the UK, which “only served to reinforce” her preference for litigation. Home beckoned again and, when she returned (first to Hesketh Henry, then back to Simpson Grierson), it was the chance to work on big, complex, commercial litigation files that attracted her to a practice in competition and financial markets work.

Nowadays, and like many women lawyers, the demands of work need to be balanced with the demands of family. In Ms Murray’s case, she and her husband have opted for him assuming the primary responsibility for being at home with their children while they are young.

“Eight years on, the way we’ve chosen to do it is still working really well for us. It allows me to do what I do at work, which I wouldn’t be able to do without his support. I love getting home to my kids at the end of the day, but if something comes up, I have flexibility. I’m not a proponent of women having it all or being able to do it all – something’s got to give, and it’s a matter of organising your life so it works for you.”

She says that, contrary to popular stereotypes and curious questions from others, her husband really enjoys the role he has taken on.

“We need to be more accepting of things like this [i.e. who takes responsibility for home duties] going both ways. In order to have more women succeeding in the workplace, it needs to be accepted that men can be the ones at home. As a society, we need to think more about how people can work to their skills and be happy, not just about traditional gender roles.”

While her own firm has a good representation of women at partnership level (sitting at around 40%) and “people are people and are treated on their merits, regardless of gender”, Ms Murray is still concerned by what she sees when looking around the wider profession.

“We have come some way, but there is still some way to go – there are still issues in the profession and there is still a need for organisations like AWLA. For a long time, I didn’t think gender was much of an issue – when I graduated from law school, my graduating class was about 50:50 male and female, and I thought that things would eventually even out. But as I gained in experience, I saw that it was not simply a matter of things filtering up.

“It seemed to me that it was often harder for women to achieve success. As a woman, it can feel like you have to work a little bit harder and be a little bit better. Subconscious bias can play into a lot of these issues. On my part, I made a conscious decision to stop being the one to offer water and tea/coffee in meetings, because I felt there was a stereotype there that I didn’t want to reinforce.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about ‘gender diversity’ and it has become something of a buzzword, but sometimes with all the talk there is not a lot of action,” she continues. “We want to create momentum around the debate – to move from talking about why things have happened a certain way, to positive, practical steps to effect change” – hence AWLA’s choice of theme for 2018 – “Agents of Change”.

“There are a number of ways in which change can happen and lots of actors who can be agents of change,” she says. “Organisations can make submissions on relevant laws and policies. Individuals can be the change they want to see – by taking charge of their own career, and calling out inappropriate behaviour when they see it. Firms can put in place policies and create a culture to encourage diversity. And clients can and are increasingly requiring their legal services providers to demonstrate a commitment to gender equality. Importantly, change is not just a ‘women’s issue’ – it is an issue for businesses and the wider community, and men are an important part of change too.”

Ms Murray also notes the importance of having voices of experience and wisdom around you in terms of career development, and says that she gets “a bit annoyed” when people say that senior women don’t support others coming through behind them.

“I still catch up with my mentor, who is a District Court judge. She has been unfailingly supportive of me, especially when we have discussed things like career progression. A number of other senior women in the profession have also been happy to give their time to help me – that’s always been my experience and I’ve found them really supportive.”

Women lawyers looking to take charge of their careers should check out ADLS’ upcoming “Leading Your Career” workshops. Run in conjunction with Miriam Dean QC and Catapult, these are taking place in Christchurch (24 May), Auckland (23 August), and Wellington (27 September). For more details, visit adls.org.nz/cpd/leading-your-career-2018-workshops/

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