A student exchange in Tokyo convinced this Tompkins Wake associate of her career path

Catharina Chung's intuition paid off and has led to great things

A student exchange in Tokyo convinced this Tompkins Wake associate of her career path
Catharina Chung

As a law student, Catharina Chung wasn’t passionate about making it far in the legal profession. But a student exchange experience in Tokyo convinced her that she was on the right track.

Today, this Tompkins Wake litigation associate is thriving in law. In addition to being part of the NZ Asian Women Lawyers subcommittee and being a champion for diversity in the profession, she has been given the opportunity to mentor young lawyers at the firm.

In this interview, Chung talks the shortage of Asian female judges in the courts, balancing innovation and tradition to draw young lawyers, and which character from Parasite she’d defend in court.

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What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

My career in law resulted from following my intuitions. Although I wasn't initially ambitious about becoming a lawyer during law school, I realised during a student exchange in Tokyo that I was on the right career path and wanted to return to Auckland to complete my degree and become a lawyer.

I enjoy problem solving, the art of persuasion, forming litigation strategies, and building solicitor-client relationships. I also appreciate the collaborative teamwork at Tompkins Wake and have been fortunate to work alongside a number of inspiring partners, senior lawyers and junior lawyers at the firm.

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you're particularly interested in?

Since joining Tompkins Wake less than a year ago, I've already been offered numerous opportunities to advance my career. The firm's partners are highly engaged in their teams' professional development. For example, I was given an opportunity to present a seminar for Legalwise, for family lawyers’ education very recently in March.

I was also selected to be a mentor for a summer clerk recently as part of Tompkins Wake’s internship programme for 2022/2023. The firm's dedication to guiding young lawyers is invaluable, and I look forward to the privilege of mentoring and supervising junior colleagues on a daily basis.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

Tompkins Wake is known for its innovation and has recently won the HRNZ's technology award for 2023. We're upgrading our practice management platform with a Project called Lightyear, which will improve communication between our four offices and staff. The project started this year, and preparation work to migrate from InfinityLaw to ActionStep and NetDocuments.

The new solution represents an exciting stage in Tompkins Wake's evolution. It will be more secure, perform faster, have numerous new functions and allow for more efficient flexible working. Its automation and connection to game-changing technologies will significantly improve managing information and business intelligence, ultimately creating a better work experience for everyone at Tompkins Wake. I'm looking forward to its implementation.

What's the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

Making the decision to move to a new law firm can be a difficult one, especially when leaving behind wonderful and competent colleagues. For me, my proudest accomplishment was making the decision to join Tompkins Wake. It was a challenging decision for me, not only because I had to leave behind colleagues I respected and admired but also because I have a young child, and my family life is equally important to me.

Before making the move, I sought advice from senior lawyers whom I trust, respect, and admire. Their thoughtful advice was invaluable, as they gave me different perspectives based on their backgrounds, experiences, and visions going forward. I learnt that it is important when you feel stuck, you seek advice from various others to gain perspectives. I thank each and everyone of them, who have taught me about collegiality and care in the profession.  Ultimately, I decided to join Tompkins Wake because of its great reputation, innovative culture, and focus on delivering high-quality legal services.

What should the legal profession focus more on?

The legal profession should focus more on collegiality, diversity, and giving back to the profession. Collegiality means being respectful and humble to our colleagues. We develop better collegiality from more face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and networking with one another in person. While digital connectivity has many benefits, we should not underestimate the importance of human interaction in our profession.

Diverse representation is also crucial. While diversity has come a long way in the legal profession, there’s still much work to be done, especially in terms of representation of Asian Women Lawyers. As a litigator, I have noticed a lack of Asian women counsels in courtrooms and an even smaller number of Asian women judges in New Zealand. This is something I am passionate about and want to see improved through my involvement with the New Zealand Asian Women Lawyers Committee. I have met numerous excellent Asian women lawyers who are diligently pursuing their goals and are eager to represent our community in a positive way.

As a profession, we need to actively support each other and remember to give back what we have earned. This means promoting collegiality, diversity, and inclusivity in our workplace, as well as using our skills to support the community outside of our work. I believe that by working together and supporting each other, we can create a stronger and more equitable legal profession.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country's legal industry?

The legal industry is currently undergoing significant changes, with technology and new ways of working reshaping the way legal services are delivered. However, many traditional law firms have been slow to embrace these changes, which has resulted in a disconnect between the expectations of young lawyers and the structures of older firms.

Young lawyers have different visions and ways of thinking about the practice of law, and many are looking for a workplace that accommodates their needs and expectations. This includes flexible work arrangements, greater use of technology, and a focus on work-life balance. Firms that fail to adapt risk losing talented young lawyers who are drawn to more innovative and forward-thinking firms.

The challenge for traditional law firms is to adapt to these changes while maintaining the traditional values and high standards that have made them successful in the past. It is crucial to find a balance between innovation and tradition to ensure that the firm remains competitive in the evolving legal market.

Tompkins Wake is an excellent example of a firm that has successfully navigated these changes and remains a leader in the legal industry. 

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

I'm looking forward to engaging in interesting and complex legal work, as well as planning my first post-Covid overseas holiday. New Zealand Women Lawyers held its very first panel discussion in February this year. It was a successful event with a great turn out and energy. I'm excited about the panel discussion that New Zealand Asian Women Lawyers is organising in May.

If you had to defend a fictional antagonist / villain in court, who would you pick, and why?

I would defend O Geun-sae from Parasite (2019). He was the guy who was living in the basement. He was a good surprise in the movie.



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