Written by Jacqueline So for NZ Lawyer Magazine 14.10.2020
Greta Melvin also believes that lawyers need to be given more incentive to take legal aid cases
For Greta Melvin, the best part of her job as a family law solicitor at Nelson-based firm Stevens Orchard Lawyers is working with what she said are “some of the greatest brains in the country.”
Melvin, who pivoted from teaching to law, is looking at exciting times in her practice area following recent amendments to the Care of Children Act. Nonetheless, a pressing challenge she has observed in the legal industry is the limited incentive offered to lawyers who are taking on legal aid cases – and she’s calling for attention to be given to this aspect of the profession.
In this interview, Melvin talks about the gap in access to justice between those eligible for legal aid and those who can pay for their defence, the need for lawyers to “unplug” after work to avoid burnout, the shortage of young lawyers in the industry and getting her full licence so she can participate in the community mentoring program sponsored by Stevens Orchard.
What made you choose a career in law?
In my final year at Otago University, I applied for teacher’s college in Christchurch, but the interview was scheduled for when I was meant to be in Queenstown for my brother’s wedding. I took that as a sign.
There are lots you can do with a law degree, which is why I was drawn to study law alongside my English degree. I also studied law because I felt like my professors wanted to train good thinkers rather than just teach facts. This has become a theme of my career and has kept me going – that I’m developing a good skill set.
What do you love most about your job?
Being in the presence of greatness – I’m working with and have worked with some of the greatest brains in the country.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
The firm sponsors Big Brothers Big Sisters, where you get to mentor/hang out with a child in your community. Embarrassingly, I only have my restricted license so once I get my full, I’ll definitely be signing up as a mentor.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
That almost everything will work again if I unplug it for a few minutes…including me. I’ve had a tendency to think I need to keep working because I’m on a roll and not sure when I’ll get my stamina back, but that can be quite harmful in the long run and leads to burn out. The longer I work into my personal time, the less time I have to re-charge in order to perform at my best.
My advice is to schedule things for after work so you’re not tempted to stay on. (I hope my mentor from the Law Society’s Mentorloop is reading this and smiling, because this is sage advice she gave me this year!)
Another lesson is that my journey in my career doesn’t need to be the same as someone else’s even if they’re in the same area of law as me. I’ve heard most litigators say that when they started they were thrown in the deep end, but I’ve always had good supervision. I think my current supervising partner is the first person who’s told me she’s also never been in a sink or swim environment; she spent the first few years of her career practising in an area not related to the area we practise in now, but I would say she is up there with lawyers I’ve worked with who’ve been practising in the area for a lot longer.
It’s about being a good learner, and if you have the right attitude, I think you can make a great career for yourself no matter where you start off.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
I’m imagining all the comments about “the youth of today” not being hard workers, but whether needing a bigger salary to fund the frequent purchasing of lattes and avocado toast is the problem, we have a massive shortage of lawyers with around 3-6 years PQE. I’m not really in the position to comment on what law firms should focus on because I’ve never had the difficult task of running one, but there could be more of a focus on creative initiatives to retain young lawyers.
I think there are opportunities within firms to allow lawyers to focus on the aspects of the job they enjoy. For example, those who enjoy client interaction could focus on initial client interviews and delegate the work to those who prefer drafting. Looking at the medical profession as an example, I had the same GP for years, but now I understand it’s common to see a different GP each time. With it being less common to be a general practice lawyer and as lawyers are increasingly finding their own niches, I think clients are moving away from expecting one person to meet all their needs and we do have the ability to be more selective about the work we want to do.
What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?
There needs to be more incentives for lawyers to take on legal aid work. One of the partners at the first firm I worked in said the legal rates are similar to what they were back in the 1970s when he started practising. He said there was a time when the rates were such that it was even quite profitable for firms to be taking on legal aid clients.
I also think there’s a big gap in access for justice between people who are eligible for legal aid and those who can afford a lawyer. However, I have found that legal aid have been understanding lately with interests of justice arguments for people who are just over the threshold. I commend them for that.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I think it’s an exciting time to be a family lawyer with the changes to the Care of Children Act allowing us to act in on notice proceedings. I’m looking forward to being there at the beginning of more proceedings to try and steer things towards a resolution.