It is with great sadness that I pen this final piece for my professional home of 16 years, Bankside Chambers. The chambers have seen me through a lot – two lots of cancer, taking silk, winning and losing cases, other professional highs and lows, and the childhood of my youngest son, a wedding and two beautiful one year old grandsons.
I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect upon the profession as it was when I began my career.
When I joined the Bar 30 years ago it was a very different place. First, going to the Bar wasn’t the commonest of professional choices, certainly not the way it is now. It was a path more typically trodden by partners leaving law firms who were about to take silk and then join the judiciary.
With my young son in tow, I came back from overseas and was offered a job in a firm or a role as an acolyte to David Baragwanath KC and other senior members of chambers at Southern Cross Chambers. This was then the biggest chambers in Auckland. I decided that taking the role as a junior barrister would give me more flexibility with a young child.
But, in hindsight, I was completely naive about the challenges of the Bar and gave no thought to the fact that I would have to attract clients to earn a living, pay rent, my PA and my nanny. I have never really lost the fear that there will be no more work. But amazingly it has all worked out and 30 years later, I still have work (but still fret about it) and still love being a barrister.
At the time that I took the step to becoming a barrister, life for women in the law was very different. When I was looking for a job at the end of my law degree it was quite normal in the interviews that I attended to be asked what my plans were for a future family (because I would clearly be leaving the profession then). One partner in a large law firm amazingly asked the 21 year old Kate what form of contraception I used – clearly addressed to the question of when I would be leaving! That firm did not offer me a job – probably I was too high a risk for them! However, apart from the six months I had off when I moved from England back to New Zealand with my new baby son I have had no time off this job and I have had three more children.
Even though there is now, and pleasingly, very little overt sexism still present in the profession there are concerning attitudes which still continue. I am sure most women barristers will have had experience of saying something in a meeting and having it ignored and then for a man to say the same thing and to have everyone leap upon it as being amazing words of wisdom. I have had quite a bit of mansplaining in my career and other counsel who are unbelievably irate with me that I won’t accept their client is going to win the case and that I should ‘give up’.
But on the whole the profession has been exceedingly kind to me and while it hasn’t been a laugh a minute, it has been a job that I have loved and that has intellectually stimulated me a great deal. I am glad that while still far from not perfect, the profession is much more multicultural and inclusive than it was even 10 years ago.
What will I miss as I move on to my new civil service role? I will miss the people – the people have been, and are, key to this job. I will miss having a coffee with my next door neighbour Christine Meechan KC, hanging out with my friend Royden Hindle who has shared chambers with me (off and on) for about 25 years. I will miss my great support of my friendly, happy, hardworking PA Trudy Butterworth. I will miss all the juniors that I have had over the years including my most recent graduate/prodigy Aidan Cameron, now a member of chambers. I will miss my opposing counsel (but not the ones that are rude and aggressive) and I will miss the thrill of the new case, the new law, the exciting argument, the great wins.
But I won’t miss the stress of the work, I won’t miss the fact that unless a case can be settled every case is win or lose. When you lose, your clients will question your advice and you will question it yourself. I won’t miss receiving those letters which are the equivalent of a Harry Potter howler letter, the ones which must have been written when the other lawyer had been having an exceptionally bad day and feels like they need to take their anger out on someone else.
And I won’t miss the relentless pressure of the job. I remember once being at a conference in Brisbane, which has a three hour time difference, and being woken by a phone call at 5am from the Court of Appeal Registry telling me that the Court wanted to have a conference in half an hour. When I protested that it was 5am the Court responded cheerfully, “Well you’re up now”.
But life at the Bar does have its lighter moments. I have done conference calls everywhere. Two examples in recent times are – a Bar Association call which coincided with a vital appointment to have my nails done. I thought I could do both, but the sound of the nail technician chatting in Vietnamese caused great confusion and concerns amongst the other attendees. We must have a crossed line they all said! I did confess after the event.
In the last year I have had breast cancer and I had to do a conference whilst receiving chemotherapy. I remember that the Judge and opposing counsel were continually asking, “can you hear the beeping, talking and alarms going off?” I was the source of the beeping, and the alarms but again professed to hearing nothing. Lest any reader think that I make a habit of this – the call was on a very difficult file when it was important that senior counsel attended.
There is sadness in leaving but also enthusiasm for this new job. What do I hope I can achieve as a DCJ? Well, I hope that I can give back to the profession and society something which can help make even a small difference to the lives of the people that will appear before me. I have been exceptionally fortunate to have had an excellent education and a free university degree. I realise that the increasingly large gaps between those in New Zealand who have that and those who don’t is something that the judiciary can do a little bit to alleviate. I look forward to being courteous to counsel because that makes such a difference, and encouraging counsel, but also expecting them to do their job so that the court can run smoothly.
It is a big leap into the unknown for me as I will have a jury warrant as well as doing civil work. While I think I can master the civil work the jury and criminal work is a complete unknown, I hope all will bear with me as I stumble my way through this work.
My life will be different now but still connected with the job that I love so much – that of the application of the law to society.
Godspeed to all in Bankside Chambers and all who deal with her. It has been a privilege to be associated with you.