Juno’s Helen Mackay on success, life, and work

by Edward Cranswick22 Mar 2019

Law is in Helen Mackay’s blood. A fourth-generation lawyer, who started working in her father’s legal office at age 12, she views law as a vocation.

Law shouldn’t be about cost-cutting, or even necessarily hours put in, but rather the delivery of a quality service to clients that doesn’t come at the expense of other important aspects of a lawyer’s life, she says.

Balancing the provision of quality legal service with the imperatives of a proper personal and family life is what led her to start Juno Legal – a hybrid legal firm that allows brilliant lawyers, both male and female, to work the hours they desire on matters that really matter to them, rather than insisting on the traditional 80+ hours a week model.

It has obviously worked, as Juno picked up the gold award for “Legal Personnel Employer of Choice” in the category of under 50 lawyers at the recent 2018 New Zealand Law Awards.

Asked for the primary reason for Juno’s success – what sets it apart from other law firms – Mackay says that the firm provides a means for accomplished in-house lawyers to have “complete autonomy over their working lives.”

“We really try to understand incredibly well what is important to each member of our team … what sort of clients they want to work with, how much of the week they want to be working,” she says. “And we work with clients who understand what flexible work looks like [in terms of] having a senior experienced in-house lawyer come in and work with them. And it’s almost like a perfect marriage. When you combine a fantastic lawyer and a fantastic client, it works really seamlessly.”

Adapting to a modern legal economy, where companies want the experience and talent of experienced in-house lawyers without necessarily having to employ them, allows Juno to maximise its lawyers’ contentedness while also providing clients with a genuinely useful and unique service. Most companies, Mackay says, “are incredibly grateful that they can get access to such fantastic talent.

But in addition to lawyers who may want a more flexible work-life arrangement, Mackay and Juno realise that it’s essential to have lawyers who are business-savvy.

“So, we’re really keen on bringing the right people on board.They have to be top lawyers, that goes without saying, but  they also need an extra layer – really good pragmatic judgement, as well as understanding what the role of a great in-house lawyer is.”

While other countries have had success in this modern style of legal service, Mackay is something of a pioneer in bringing it to New Zealand. That said, she wants to avoid the pitfalls that come with the old model of seeking simply growth, profits, and size.

“We see ourselves as not trying to be the biggest and fastest growing and most profitable. We’re trying to be really sustainable and focused on what our people want and putting our people first,” she says.

We asked Mackay if, after more than 20 years in the legal profession, she’d ever considered changing career paths.

She doesn’t see herself leaving the law. Her father retired only recently from practice, in his late 70s. But with the legal profession and market changing rapidly and in sometimes unexpected directions, she knows that the trajectory of Juno may change as well: “I want to be really responsive and anticipate what people want from us and our skillsets.”

A memorable moment she cites in her career – a turning point of sorts – came in her early 20s as a young lawyer. She recalls a tense moment coming at the end of a major transaction:

“I still remember on the transaction  closing, there was a major issue and I remember reading the terms and conditions and thinking, you know, this was fine, we have the ability to vary the terms.And of course, everyone was running around like  headless chickens and it wasn’t until a very senior male lawyer came into the room and repeated what I said 45 minutes ago … [that] people stopped … and understood that it wasn’t such a major issue. I recall just thinking to myself, ‘Isn’t this interesting? I said it 45 minutes ago but I was the most junior person in the room and so I didn’t have a voice that must be heard.”

For Mackay, who had been right, it was a moment of illumination and highlighte to her the necessity of backing and respecting herself.

While old-school law firms might still be attached to traditional notions of hierarchy and formality and procedure, she believes that increasingly the legal profession will move towards those who are simply better at solving problems: “I think seeing the practice of law as a much more integrated act of problem-solving and decision-making in a wider aspect … lots of commercial acumen and strategic judgement is just as important as good legal advice.”

Finally – what piece of advice would she give to a younger self starting out in the legal trade? “Travel more, and buy less,” she says.

“Travelling and seeing the world with your own eyes is far more enriching I think than any product,” she says. “I just think that the ability to do that is extraordinary. I love travelling and I love going all over the world – particularly since we live in a very small island in the South Pacific.”

“Seeing the world is something I could never get tired of.”