In my previous post, I shared the thank you letter that I wrote to two partners at Freshfields for acting as my referees when I applied for a position at Bell Gully notwithstanding having a mental illness. If you want, you can also read the thank you letter I wrote to Bell Gully after I left the firm here. Towards the end of the letter that I wrote to my two referees at Freshfields (which were basically the same so I only reproduced one letter), I remarked that I felt grateful to them for having me in the International Arbitration Group and my training at Freshfields more generally because it helped me get my head around some difficult medical topics, think laterally and come up with a solution to a challenging problem. I want to unpack my comment further in this series of posts.
First of all, I should clarify that it wasn’t solely my experience working at Freshfields (and also Bell Gully for that matter) that helped me work through some difficult health issues which I have been battling in my 30s since my first psychotic episode at the age of 29. I know I’ve revised my position slightly but that doesn’t detract from what I originally said, just like Dworkin’s theory of the law isn’t wrong just because he later revised what he wrote, despite what Hart would say. It’s a bit like amending a contract. The original one wasn’t wrong, it’s just that things have changed and you now see things differently. Surprisingly, it was my passion for running, which I have done over the past 17 years (on and off in my 30s due to health issues), which also helped me develop a way forward since the time of the letter that I wrote to the partners from Freshfields who were my referees for my job application to Bell Gully.
I know I probably shouldn’t get side-tracked in a blog but I might have to return to this point in a future post because I’d like to address a few side issues which have arisen. I’m new to blogging and it’s a completely different style of writing which I’m used to, so forgive me if I’ve broken a few rules along the way.
1. Even if you’ve been lawyering at a Magic Circle firm overseas (or White Shoe one if you’re lucky enough to work in the US), you can’t just walk into a job with a law firm in New Zealand on the back of that, not least because you need a security card to enter the premises. Believe it or not they might not necessarily want to hire you despite how amazing you think your overseas experience is. For starters, they might not be able to create a position due to lack of work or you might not have the experience they’re looking for. Also, they might not actually like you as a person, which is a very good reason not to hire someone inspite of their qualifications and experience. Furthermore, you do actually have to apply to the firm, even if your job interview is essentially over a few beers at a bar sitting out in the sunshine. Mine was a bit different and took place in a meeting room on the firm’s reception level with a beautiful view (which you can see in this post) because I had to have a difficult conversation about my mental health issues with Garry, as alluded to in my thank you letter to my referees from Freshfields. I didn’t want anyone to overhear what we were saying because it was quite personal. I’m sure our nosy neighbours would have loved to have been privy to that conversation.
2. After you’re hired, you have to work your way up if you want to become a partner. Just because you’ve flown into the firm from a glamorous location overseas like the way lawyers working in the field of arbitration do all the time, you don’t get to skip any steps unfortunately. For example, one of my bosses in the Corporate team I was working in at Bell Gully, Dean Alderton, was a Senior Associate for awhile before he became a partner, notwithstanding that he had previously been a partner at Dentons in Dubai for a number of years. Simon Consedine was also a Senior Associate upon returning to Bell Gully in Wellington after working as an associate at Freshfields in the firm’s Paris office. The same applied to my law school friend Tim Fitzgerald, who worked at Slaughter and May and who I referred to in my thank you letter to Bell Gully. It’s a different path for barristers but Robert Kirkness, another law school friend in my cohort who was previously Counsel in the Singapore office at Freshfields and is now at Thorndon Chambers in Wellington, didn’t go straight to becoming a QC notwithstanding his impressive achievements and has to start at the bottom in chambers. Such is life. Even if it may seem unfair, there’s nothing you can do than accept it, work hard and start climbing a new ladder, really. They should all be glad that at least they didn’t have to change practice areas like me and accept a cut in seniority, not that it’s something that bothers me because I enjoyed working in Garry and Dean’s team so much and like Corporate too. That’s me, I always like having a finger in every pie, which no doubt contributed to my weight issues.
So why exactly can’t you just waltz into the partnership at a NZ law firm if you’ve returned home from overseas and you’re some legal hotshot? Leaving Rob aside because his career path is different as a barrister, the reason is because in order to become a partner, you need to first establish a local book of business, which you won’t have if you’ve been working overseas. But it can be hard even if you’re lateralling to another firm in the same city, even overseas. You can’t just simply take all your clients from your previous firm because (i) you might not be allowed to; and (ii) they might not like it if you do that. Who cares what the partners at your previous firm think of you, you might say? I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to fall out with people at your previous firm because legal circles are very small and as I observed in the title of my previous post, it always goes back to Freshfields, as Garry knows too well because he also worked there.
As I keep saying, even in different contexts like running and weight loss, it’s all very circular. That’s why in my view, Nigel Blackaby is much better off staying put rather than moving across town to Three Crowns (not that I know the lay of the land in DC because I’ve never been there but Simon can confirm whether this is accurate as he made that exact transition himself recently). The former Freshfieldiens who founded Three Crowns simply need to accept the fact that they’ll never be able to get away from Freshfields. Now with the addition of another Freshfields partner to Three Crowns, it really is like a mini-Freshfields! All the founding partners have done is simply rebrand and now are sitting in different surroundings, yet still mixing in the same circles. You still can’t escape that arbitration partner at Freshfields that you never got along with, even if they’re based in a different city! Blackaby of course foresaw this problem, not that I’m implying the others didn’t, which is why he’s sitting still. We don’t really need to have this conversation together. The partners at large law firms are very smart and there isn’t anything you can tell them which they don’t already know.
The reason I wanted to make the points above is because I’m sick of people outside the profession thinking that lawyers and judges are powerful people who think they can do whatever they want. Lawyers don’t mind following rules, including the law. Don’t confuse us with politicians who are quite different. We trained as lawyers and are proud to be a part of the profession. We don’t want to be politicians. I’ll leave it here for now and will develop this thread in further posts.