Two lawyers, one job

by Hannah Norton29 Apr 2015
Two part-time lawyers doing one full time job: job-sharing is a concept that is yet to take off in New Zealand.

But for the first female partner of IP firm AJ Park – who has just returned to its helm this year – Colleen Cavanagh, job-sharing was to ease back into the legal industry after taking time off.

First appointed partner at AJ Park in 1990, Cavanagh left after nine years to spend with her young family. Her venture back into the workforce following this included part-time work at a boutique firm and a job-sharing role at Bell Gully, before going on to manage full-time the firm’s non-contentious IP practice.

“The job-sharing in the early years when I was at Bell Gully was great,” Cavanagh told NZLawyer.

Women often struggle with part-time work as they are often trying to fit a significant work-load into a limited time-frame, with no-one picking up for them when they aren’t there, she said.

“The great thing about the job-share situation is that I could go away on my days off and still have things happening as we had a sort of joint responsibility for clients’ matters, and I think that’s a great position to be in if you can achieve it.”

A key to achieving it is a good fit of people, Cavanagh said.

“It does admittedly require you to be working with someone that you really click with, that you can trust and with who you’ve got similar work styles and ethics.”

The firm also has to be on board.

“You need to have a joint budget, for example, where we are all answerable to the figures.”

One problem Cavanagh identified with the concept was part-time work masquerading as part-time “that isn’t really”.

“That’s where it’s really hard for women – or men – part-timers to really get ahead, and also feel that they get a fair deal. So they are actually able to have their down time when they are not working.”

Well-known public law specialist and Chen Palmer founding partner Mai Chen said the importance of job-sharing was centred around how well the two lawyers knew each other, and whether they could trust each other. “Can you work seamlessly together?”

“You can’t charge clients for getting two lawyers up to speed when one can do it, nor for double-handling. And there’s also a timeliness problem. Sometimes, clients are on fire. There isn’t the time to do handover – you just have to stay and put the fire out.”

However, when it came to her staff, it was a case of “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.

“It’s like making a decision to get married – once you make the decision, everything else is just detail,” she told NZLawyer.

“I’ve had women staff who have had all sorts of complications and problems in having children, which has left them bedridden.

"Look, it’s still possible – you buy them a laptop, and they work when they can.”

Chen said it was time people threw away the old view of how law was done, in offices, 8.30am to 6.30pm five days a week.

“You need to focus on outcome. How do we service clients with the best advice, at the cheapest cost, in a timely manner? And still allow people to get sick or take care of sick kids and get through rough patches in pregnancy.

“I think you really have to do that, or you are making life impossible for your staff. They have to choose between family and a career, and let me tell you, if that is the choice, then my counsel would always be family first. You can always work later, but there will come a point where you can no longer have children, so you have to have a family while you can.”