Having influential female leaders in law is of great importance when promoting an equal legal society with fairness and justice for all. While just over half of solicitors in Australia and New Zealand are female, there is still much work to do before equality can be achieved. In New Zealand, women make up 60% of lawyers yet make up less than 31% of partners or directors in those firms, according to the New Zealand law report. Furthermore, the New Zealand Law Society said that since 1988, only 19.1% of people appointed to Queens Counsel have been women.
This is where women like Kristy McDonald step in. Kristy is currently one of New Zealand’s leading senior barristers, providing leadership, mentoring, and collegial support. In 1999 she was appointed Queen’s Counsel and was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2019. While the underrepresentation of women in senior legal positions is a cause for concern, women like Kristy provide strong role models for women pursuing a career in law and hope for the new generation of women lawyers.
Kristy is a respected senior barrister of New Zealand. Having graduated from the University of Otago (where she was president of the Law Students Association), she later completed her honours at the University of Canterbury. She gained a lot of practical experience during the early years of her career, and that she regards that as an important factor to her later success. Her experience in public and commercial law has given her great insight into the New Zealand legal system. Kristy works across a wide range of areas, including litigation and strategic legal advice, inquiries and reviews and governance.
What were some of the most notable turning points in your life that really set your trajectory towards pursuing a career in law?
I was never one to walk away from an argument and wasn’t very good at maths, so law seemed an obvious choice. I came from a working class family who strongly encouraged and supported me: “Girls can do anything,” my father would say. He was the original male feminist and was determined I would go to university. I wanted a vocational education and career, and law seemed apt; I’d trained in debating and speech and sung in public, so I was confident I’d be comfortable in the performance aspects of the profession.
I enjoyed my time at law school, but it was the practice of law – adapting the theory to the complex realities of life – that attracted and challenged me. Of course, an essential part of that is learning from others. I was fortunate when I entered the profession to have great support from experienced senior lawyers, so I got hands-on practical experience very early in my career.
When I started out as a young crown prosecutor I was an oddity; there were few, if any, women doing that kind of work – and it was hard work. I had to develop techniques to be strong and not to be too affected by the trauma and heartache I witnessed. Attending homicide scenes (as you did in those days), working with children and deeply traumatised victims of crime, cross examining sex offenders, gang members, conmen and women – these things all became turning points. That sort of experience early in a career defines you.
There were a couple of senior mentors who had a profound influence on my work. Both were very principled men with a generosity of spirit as well as wisdom and a sense of humour. Most importantly, they cared about people. I learnt a lot from them – not just the practice of law but about doing the right thing when that is sometimes difficult, and learning how to observe and listen to people.
From public to commercial law, you have a very diverse range of specialisation, how did you come to develop such a wide portfolio of experience?
I was lucky enough to be given some wonderful opportunities very early in my career and I made the most of them. Those opportunities provided me with great experience and the skills to practice across a range of areas. Specialising too soon can be limiting; I advise young lawyers to seek wide experience when starting out – to get as much practical experience as you can as early as you can. It’s very hard to get the essential grounding later in your career. Many students are naturally attracted to the large corporate firms. Those firms do offer a lot, but they don’t necessarily provide the best grounding or the opportunity to get good practical experience with clients, witnesses, and courts.
It’s important to take opportunities when they arise. All too often young professionals – particularly woman – don’t have the confidence to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Being positive, backing yourself, working hard – these are all crucial for success, as is recognising that others have experience you won’t have, and being ready to learn from them. Respect for seniority and valuing others’ experience really matters. I often hear junior lawyers who think they can run before they can walk, who think they can do everything and fail to respect the judgment and wisdom that comes from age and experience.
Are there any areas of law that you believe and expect will undergo growth and interesting developments in the coming decade? Would you say there are any specific roles women would have in such developments?
The world is changing rapidly, and our profession must keep pace with that change. The law must evolve to meet challenges presented by developments in technology, media, or the way in which personal data is collected and stored. The way we engage and communicate is hard to keep up with and the legal and social issues arising from these changes are many and significant. Lawyers will have a key role in all of these issues: from developing policy and regulation to managing risk; from providing creative advice and solutions to resolving complex disputes. Human rights, individual rights; climate change and sustainability; addressing discriminatory practices more effectively – these all loom large on the legal horizon.
Electoral law and issues around cyber-hacking and the undermining of the democratic processes, fake news and fake politics must draw the attention of lawyers. It’s increasingly clear that democracy and the rule of law are facing significant threats, and I would argue that lawyers need to play a more active role in defending our society’s values. We need to show leadership in developing legal tools to combat attempts to undermine the democratic process.
Women have a role to play in all of these areas. I see no distinction between what men and women can do in the law.
As a woman working within the legal sector, would you say there are distinct layers of patriarchy or misogyny embedded within the industry? Have you personally experienced such an environment throughout your career?
This is a complex question. Yes, I have witnessed and experienced bullying, discriminatory, patronising, overbearing and damaging behaviour – from women as well as men.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that I’ve also experienced considerable support from men throughout my career; men have offered me some of my most significant professional opportunities.
Unfortunately, even after 40 years, I still encounter overbearing behaviour and condescending attitudes from some men, as well as unpleasant and overly competitive behaviour from some women in the profession.
“Over talking” and “mansplaining” by men in meetings is a particular issue for women because it’s hard to deal with in the moment. Being talked over or talked down in a group setting – be it a meeting or around a board table – is very common. Strong responses are often viewed negatively: a strong woman advocate is often portrayed as “stroppy” or “strident.” I’ve certainly been called those things, and “flinty” and “aggressive” to boot! When a man acts that way he’s called “strong,” “powerful,” or “formidable.”
It wasn’t many years ago that I chaired a board meeting where a male board member turned his chair to the wall and announced that he “refused to be chaired by a woman.” I simply let him sit for the entire meeting facing the wall and carried on.
Women often doubt themselves and don’t “put their hand up” to take opportunities, and many young women lawyers seem diffident about putting themselves forward. That doesn’t seem to be an issue for a lot of young men, regardless of their talent.
Women of my generation had little if any real support from other women as young practitioners; there were few women doing the sort of work I did as a young lawyer. Criminal trial work, for instance, was a male domain; you couldn’t react to every sexist comment or you’d have been sidelined very quickly. You need to learn what’s important and what’s not.
Things have changed a great deal for the better; I would even argue that we need to take care nowadays that young women don’t become victims and lose their resilience or their sense of fun. Many seem to take themselves too seriously. It’s important to have a sense of proportion in the way you react to issues. Men today often find themselves confused about how they should treat professional women. For instance, a man telling a woman she looks nice, or opening a door for her, in my view isn’t necessarily offensive or patronising. But a man talking a woman down in a meeting, being dismissive, or making sexist remarks in the work place – that is not acceptable and should be rejected in a strong and measured way. It’s about knowing when to react and how to react.
It’s easy to become preoccupied with these issues to your detriment; they can become all-consuming. Don’t lose your sense of humour. Sometimes you just have to take a breath and put up with it; at other times you need to take a stand. It’s a matter of balance and common sense.
What advice would you give to young women hoping to enter into either or both commercial and public fields?
Get the basics – learn from others. Listen to others and respect experience.
Don’t try to run before you can walk.
Take and make the most of the opportunities that come your way.
Find techniques that allow you to deal with pressure and stress.
Law, as with many other professions, is about understanding life and people; I think that’s the single most important thing. In the end it’s about people: you can’t cross-examine a witness if you don’t know how to listen to them; you can’t advise a client if you have not lived and experienced enough of life to have developed judgment, sensitivity and empathy.
You don’t win cases or succeed relying on the law alone. It’s always about the facts and facts are about the people: what they do and why they do it
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