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Great careers are by-products of decades of work.
All of NZ Lawyer’s Rising Stars 2023 are on that trajectory, marked out not only for their professional abilities but also for their understanding of how to use them.
Previous Rising Star 2021 winner Alastair Espie, a senior associate at Duncan Cotterill, knows how recognition can allow talented lawyers to shine even brighter.
“Being on that list has given me a platform to really advance my career and a lot of opportunities I might not have otherwise had.
“It’s led to a lot of the really interesting work I’ve been able to do, exposure to a wide range of clients in New Zealand but also internationally, particularly across Australasia, and also being internationally ranked,” he says.
“One of the main things that I bring to an organisation is that I like to think of new and innovative ways of doing things. I’m really committed to seeing things improve”
Megan Cucerzan, MBIE
Megan Cucerzan, senior legal technologist at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), attributes her success to beginning with no preconceived ideas.
She says, “I had little background knowledge before I started studying and working in the profession, and it has really helped that I didn’t know the traditional ways of working or thinking. One of the main things that I bring to an organisation is that I like to think of new and innovative ways of doing things. I’m really committed to seeing things improve.”
This is echoed by fellow Rising Star Tim Conder. In his role as an associate in the litigation team at Holland Beckett Law, he refuses to blindly follow tradition.
“There have been a few situations that I’ve come across where if you just go down the usual track of trying to approach them, you end up bogged down in processes that don’t really help the client,” Conder explains.
“Taking a step back and being prepared to swing for something that’s a little bit unusual, but also to bring the client along for the ride and explain to them the reasons why you’re making a very different pathway decision and that it’s not going to look like the process they might have expected. That’s really something that’s born dividends for me and means clients have a lot of respect for what was achieved,” he adds.
Whereas Webb Henderson senior associate Alexandra Flaus points to her ability to communicate with multiple stakeholders in corporate advisory.
“We do a lot of work with accountants and investment bankers who work within businesses, and I think a key thing that I’m good at is bringing those groups together and leading work streams,” she says. “I’m building relationships with people and breaking stuff down, dealing with complex stuff in a commercial way instead of purely legalistically, which is really interesting.”
For another Rising Star, senior associate Jacinda May at Tompkins Wake, it’s about connecting professionally and personally.
Highlighting her strong points, she says, “My ability to think outside the box and approach transactions in a strategic and streamlined way.”
She adds, “In addition, I have a talent for building strong relationships with clients by getting to know them on a personal level. This approach enables me to better understand their needs and provide tailored advice that is both effective and empathetic.”
“For me at least, it’s working amazingly well, and I’ve gone from a place where I started out as a young lawyer thinking this isn’t sustainable long term to actually loving the area of law and thinking that I can do it long term”
Alexandra Flaus, Webb Henderson
A common theme among this year’s Rising Stars cohort is how they shoulder responsibility by design.
Flaus switched from a large to a boutique-sized firm, and to some, that may have seemed unwise.
She says, “We’ve described ourselves as a cylindrical model instead of a triangle, but that means that you get a lot of beefy work, you get to lead the team and you get to step up a lot earlier. I’ve worked directly with partners and learned a lot more, which I’ve found really beneficial and has improved my practice, making me the lawyer I am.”
Conder also made a conscious decision to seek the chance to assume more senior duties.
“I wanted to have a really broad practice, but I also wanted to have a lot of on-my-feet experience and chances to do things for myself,” he explains. “I knew one of the partners in Tauranga, and I knew that if I came down here, I’d be thrown out of my depth, which is exactly what happened.”
He’s now a better lawyer after fine-tuning his skills in the spotlight.
Conder adds, “I have had the opportunity to learn and become better by doing it. That’s been invaluable.”
Ironically, going the other way was Cucerzan. She worked for a barrister, who entrusted her to oversee matters with his staff of three to four people.
“It was extremely small; my work was in international arbitration, and he was often away. So, in order to keep things running with our 50 cases, in a small team, you have to do things to try and find a way forward.”
Now at MBIE, as part of a very large organisation, she utilises the skills that were developed in those early years.
“I still work in a pretty focused team, and we’re the only people doing my particular work. So, we still have a little bit of flexibility to try and push things further,” says Cucerzan.
“I wanted to have a really broad practice, but I also wanted to have a lot of on-my-feet experience and chances to do things for myself”
Tim Conder, Holland Beckett Law
The stereotype of well-remunerated lawyers working in glass towers at all hours of the night is well-worn.
The Rising Stars of 2023 are proof that a successful career can be moulded and does not have to be devoid of work-life balance.
Cucerzan was set to become a barrister, taking on clients, but opted to go a different route.
“In the public sector, I’ve met people who are just as intelligent and wonderful mentors; it’s a great place to work.”
Part of Cucerzan’s goal is to create as much lasting impact as possible.
She adds, “I’m trying to make it easier for people to access the legal services the government provides. At the moment, I’m working on technology designed to help people interact with the procurement processes within government. But solutions don’t have to be technology-based; a well-designed piece of legislation can have a positive impact for generations to come.”
Forging a stellar reputation is a target that May has set.
“My ultimate aim is to build a strong personal brand as a commercial property specialist and become known for my expertise and dedication to my clients,” she explains.
Faus didn’t expect to be in her current role now. She started at a time when the demands were such that they didn’t align with non-work priorities.
“The traditional model has been to work very hard for long hours, and it’s not conducive to family life or having hobbies or extracurriculars. But I think I’ve come to this stage of my career at an interesting time, as flexible working has become a bigger thing. We’ve seen that you can go home and pick your kids up from kindergarten and log on later at night if you need to, and you can work in a way that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice in those other areas.”
This has meant Faus has continued in her niche, rather than having to find a less high-profile role.
“For me at least, it’s working amazingly well, and I’ve gone from a place where I started out as a young lawyer thinking this isn’t sustainable long term to actually loving the area of law and thinking that I can do it long term.”
Mentoring is something that Conder, who’s been invited to become a partner, focuses on.
He explains, “I really spend time talking with junior staff about active decision-making. It’s about taking a step back and thinking about the life you want to have for yourself and then asking whether the role that you are in and the things that you’re looking to do are consistent with that. It’s the people who pause who end up getting the best return on those decisions.”
Backing that up is another previous Rising Star 2021 winner, Renika Siciliano, executive director at McCaw Lewis Lawyers and co-president of the New Zealand Māori Law Society.
“Those softer tools around ensuring culture are key in workplaces – the work-life harmony, as we call it at our office – and understanding all of those things, such as mental health and hauora, are at the forefront more than they probably ever have been. I definitely think that with that environment, increasingly there are spaces for driven and dedicated younger people to come through and succeed,” she says.
“My ultimate aim is to build a strong personal brand as a commercial property specialist and become known for my expertise and dedication to my clients”
Jacinda May, Tompkins Wake
Last November, NZ Lawyer accepted nominations for the 2023 Rising Stars list. The standout young stars from the New Zealand legal profession were invited to put their names forward; those who knew of and wished to highlight such talent were also asked to submit nominations.
Nominees needed to be 35 or under as of 31 January. They had to have committed to a career in the legal profession and shown a clear passion for the industry. The NZ Lawyer team also required nominees to cite their current position, responsibilities and key achievements over the past 12 months.
The team considered recommendations from managers and senior industry professionals in the review process conducted after the nomination period. After considering all aspects of the many submissions received, 50 emerged as the brightest young stars of the batch.