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Finding your niche: five lawyers tell their stories

25 Mar 2022

| Author: Diana Clement

Most law graduates find themselves doing a bit of everything in their first few years of working in the profession. But, at some point, they tire of being all things to all people and begin to identify a specific area of the law they find interesting. Slowly, they carve out a niche – an area where they can specialise and differentiate themselves from other practitioners.

Financially, this can be a boon. In a world of ever-changing legislation, regulation and technology, clients will seek out, and be prepared to pay for, their specialist knowledge. But for most it’s not just about the money. LawNews spoke to five practitioners who’ve built thriving practices by focusing on the areas of the law that matter most to them. Here are their stories.

Deborah Manning

Refugee and immigration lawyer Deborah Manning knew her niche would involve helping others, even before she entered law school.

“I was planning to become a nurse,” Manning says. “I applied. But a teacher at my high school thought that I should do law because I was interested in social justice and helping others in the community. [The teacher] said I could be more effective doing that with a law degree to bring about systemic change in law reform.”

The teacher even filled in her university application. “I didn’t do it myself.”

Manning planned to go straight into law reform after university. In her final year, however, she realised that practice would enable her to help others directly. She didn’t want to waste time doing general practice before launching into a field that would help others.

“I’ve always had an impatience about time,” she says. “I was counselled by so many people that I was making a mistake [in specialising immediately]. But I knew I needed to do work that I believed in, and that connected with my values.

“It’s just a privilege to work in refugee law, to work with people who really need the assistance of a lawyer and benefit of the rule of law that New Zealand can offer.”

She narrowed down possible niches to refugee/immigration, elder and mental health law.

Over the past 20 years, Manning has been in and out of the news, notably with the Ahmed Zaoui refugee case and the Operation Burnham inquiry where she represented Afghan villagers.

Manning says she wonders how a future student of history might view her cases. “How do I want someone to read about the Zaoui case? How do I want someone to read about Operation Burnham? I think about what’s the one sentence in the history textbook I want people to read about. Every case has to be a gold standard.”

Manning’s area of the law is less lucrative than many others, which she accepts. During the Zaoui case, she had an epiphany. “I had this lightbulb moment during Zaoui when funding was looking like it was going to dry up. I didn’t think I could do it anymore.

“Rather than trying to earn the maximum of my earning potential, I figured out what I actually needed, and it was quite a big difference. It liberated me. What gives me freedom is trying to have as little financial encumbrances as I can, and it gives me independence. It gives me the freedom to take on cases I believe in on either legal aid rates or pro bono.

“I get a lot of meaning out of my professional practice [and] from the people I work with and alongside, [including] opposing counsel. A lot of professional reward for me is that collegiality.

“I believe in the rule of law, and I don’t believe it’s something that’s there by accident. I just want to be able to use my skills to protect people who are vulnerable in the system. It’s just the way I’m built.

“I believe with privilege comes responsibility. And I think that lawyers by definition have privilege. And I think we have social responsibilities.”

What’s more, says Manning, the interaction with each client is an extremely special relationship. “It’s a fiduciary relationship. So, it’s one of the most special relationships of responsibility you can have. They trust you with the secrets that usually nobody else knows. It’s a very meaningful interaction and relationship with the client, in particularly in his area of law.”

Manning isn’t convinced she will always practise in this area of law. “My philosophy has always been that I may not do this area of law next year but I will do it as long as it is of value to others and is something that I’m able to get maximum effect from.

“Every year I review what I’m doing. I have gone off and done some other things from time to time, namely, when I went and worked with the UN Human Rights mechanisms, but I’ve returned to this area of law for over 20 years.”

James Cochrane

Stace Hammond partner James Cochrane has seen new market opportunities in the law around cryptocurrencies and investments and has been segueing from insolvency and disputes to building a specialist practice in crypto-related law, which will transcend national boundaries.

His niche evolved from his core practice in insolvency, combined with a personal interest in global macroeconomics, financial markets and investing in crypto and other assets.

“I fancy myself as a bit of an early adopter of technology,” Cochrane says. “It goes back to my childhood where I loved playing on my Commodore Amiga 500 and then my PlayStation and things like that.

“I recognised that there were insolvency events relating to crypto exchanges and it was impacting on my core practice. [At the same time] I was looking for something that was unique for my practice. I guess to stand out, to make my firm stand out from other firms.”

Cochrane saw interest in crypto currency and other assets growing exponentially on social media and says he went down a considerably large rabbit hole of learning. “I found it like learning a new language.”

The crypto practice has developed largely by word of mouth.

“I guess when you’re passionate about something, you talk to people about what you’re doing,” he says.

Like many of those with new niches, Cochrane has also grown the practice through LinkedIn and other social networks. He posts regularly to a Telegraph group relating to Binance. He publishes articles on both platforms, which help promote his understanding of the topic.

Cochrane also wrote a lengthy submission for the Parliamentary Inquiry into the current and future nature, impact, and risks of cryptocurrencies. It was a turning point. “It was a catalyst for me.”

The work itself is a mix of non-contentious advisory work as well as contentious work where the law lacks regulatory guidance.

Cochrane doesn’t believe crypto will ever make up 100% of his practice. “I still enjoy that [other] work, particularly insolvency and company-related disputes and I don’t have any intention of giving it up. But the chances of crypto becoming a larger percentage of my practice than it presently is, I strongly believe, are high.”

Julian Hague

Barrister Julian Hague, convenor of the ADLS Mental Health and Disability Law Committee, started taking mental health cases because he was interested in the different ways people experience the world during times of extreme psychological crisis.

His work involves representing patients during the process of being committed under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act.

“The lawyer’s principal responsibility is to do their best to assist the client/patient to understand their circumstances in the context of having been assessed as suffering from a serious mental illness and the responsible psychiatrist’s application to the court for authority to treat that illness on a compulsory basis.

“The lawyer’s role is to explain the full context and reasoning of that application and then to assist the client/patient to convey their views on that application to the judge, as best they can. The depth of the client/patient’s illness, and the degree of their insight, are the crucial challenges the lawyer must face.”

Prior to covid, which has drastically pushed the interactions with patients online, or by phone, Hague particularly enjoyed the empathetic side of the job, meeting clients in person at short notice. They could present with anything from mild mental illness at one end of the scale to being in the middle of a florid psychotic episode.

“They may be haunted and terrorised by something we cannot see. It’s like someone describing a dream or a nightmare to you. Four or five weeks later hopefully you will be able to have an affable and insightful conversation with them.”

Hague says his clients’ lives are often harsh with despair, especially where methamphetamine is involved. “I certainly hold great admiration for those who successfully overcome such difficulties.”

Hague has developed his practice over several years, adding a degree in psychology to his LLM ‘a million years ago’. Other than that, he reads a great deal on the subjects of psychiatry and psychology.

Mike Sullivan

Marine lawyer Mike Sullivan fell into a lucrative area of the law thanks in part to being at the right place at the right time.

Nelson-based Sullivan started his legal career as a Crown prosecutor. During a stint in Gisborne in the 1980s he found himself prosecuting fisheries cases for the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF). “It was right in the middle of a hiatus in terms of the law relating to measuring rock lobsters, just before the quota system was introduced in the 1986 amendments to the fisheries legislation.”

It turned out that Sullivan was having more success with MAF cases than most other prosecutors around the country and he became the ministry’s go-to person when it came to solving problems.

That focused Sullivan on fisheries and when he read the 1986 amendments to the Fisheries Act 1908, which brought in the quota system, he realised there was a major revolution in property rights for fisheries on its way, which would herald a lucrative field for lawyers.

Sullivan ended up doing a seven-year stint for the ministry at a salary he simply couldn’t turn down. After that, and with a master’s degree in law and marine affairs under his belt, Sullivan launched his own practice, which subsequently expanded from fisheries into maritime, commercial, aquaculture, admiralty law and related fields.

“It was a sequential series of steps with a few serendipitous events that led me [there],” he says.

It has paid well, boosted by covid-19 work. The practice has had more than two lawyers working fulltime throughout the pandemic on placing foreign crew on New Zealand fishing vessels. Additional work has included securing equipment for fishing vessels when overseas entities failed to honour contracts within guaranteed periods.

“I love being a specialist in a boutique firm,” says Sullivan. “I think it’s extremely interesting.” He doesn’t, however, recommend that junior lawyers specialise too soon.

“Don’t,” he says. “Even though you’re dealing with a very specialist area, it frequently involves you having a good understanding of the broader areas of practice, such as contract, commercial law, trusts and the like. You will find that the problems that you face are multifaceted even though they involve your specialist area.”

Stewart Dalley

Stewart Dalley, a lawyer at D&S Law, convenor of the ADLS Immigration and Refugee Law committee, and his partner were the first gay couple in New Zealand to officially adopt children by surrogacy.

Prior to that, the courts restricted surrogacy adoptions to married heterosexual couples and later de facto couples.

After the marriage equality law was passed, Dalley and his partner filed with the court for same sex de facto couples to be allowed to adopt by surrogacy. “That was really a personal experience that drove me towards researching [surrogacy law],” Dalley says. “Then, bit by bit, I’ve built up my practice by representing other people.”

Predominantly his clients for the surrogacy side of the practice are gay men. But he also has clients who need sperm donor agreements.

Dalley has won a number of cases that have paved the way for others in the rainbow community. One involved a lesbian couple who were told by Births, Deaths and Marriages that there would be a ‘mother’ and an ‘other parent’ on the birth certificate. The case resulted in change.

He says only three or four lawyers nationwide do surrogacy law. “For me, there is a professional interest. I like helping people solve the problem. I’ve been there. I’ve lived through it.”

Surrogacy and related work ‘pays reasonably well’, Dalley says. Certainly better than the refugee law side of his practice.

James Cochrane is a speaker at the Cradle to GraveTM conference and Stewart Dalley is chairing a CPD webinar on the deportation process ■

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