Andrew Little: 'As a minister you're bang in the middle of the law'

The former minister's time in government helped him to better appreciate the essential role of the courts

Andrew Little: 'As a minister you're bang in the middle of the law'
Andrew Little

Andrew Little has had a storied career over the past few years, having served as minister of treaty of Waitangi negotiations, justice minister, and health minister. His time in government placed him “bang in the middle of the law”, and he has come to better appreciate the essential role played by the courts.

Recently, Gibson Sheat announced Little’s return to the legal profession, and in his new role as a consultant for the firm, Little reflects on his love of litigation, what his initial plan for returning to the legal profession was, and his biggest takeaway from his government stint.

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

I liked the idea of making law and the legal system accessible to people. In practicing law what I found most enjoyable is the sense of providing resolution, and usually a sense of justice or even just being heard.

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What spurred your decision to return to private practice after your stint as minister?

I always loved litigation with its combination of problem-solving and organising a production. As a minister you’re bang in the middle of the law, its impact on people and challenges to the exercise of authority. You get an even greater appreciation of the essential role the courts play as a foil against wrongly exercised executive authority.

What led you to join Gibson Sheat?

My original intention was to go out as a barrister sole but many lawyer friends warned that coming back to legal practice on my own after so long out of it would make it challenging to be viable for some time. Gibson Sheat had expressed interest in me coming on board and when I thought about it I realised that working with a team suits me better anyway. After a lot of mutual checking out, I signed up to the firm.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

My proudest accomplishment in the last year was as a minister, but it took the same mental skills I recall using as a lawyer dealing with a challenging case to do it. When I first became defence minister, it was immediately apparent we had a major problem with force attrition not helped by pay rates that were out of whack with comparable roles in the market. The budget process was all but complete, so I had to reopen the defence bid to get a substantially bigger pay rise funded. It meant not being fazed by the size of the challenge and focusing on why getting this decision right was so important. I got what I would describe as an 80% result.

What should the profession focus more on?

In the short time I have been back involved in the profession I am impressed at the efforts now going into making the practise of law more inclusive and with a greater focus on supportive workplace culture. It’s vital to get this stuff right if we want future talent to consider a career in law.

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?

Expectations on the legal system and expectations about getting justice are changing. The role the legal system plays in moderating imbalances in power – not just the court system but the fact people can get access to legal advice to inform their decisions – is essential but still too inaccessible to many people. Lawyers and firms have to make a living but we also need to realise access to justice remains a challenge.

What is the most important thing you’ll be bringing to your new role from your time in government?

Having been a minister, you get the best understanding of how government works at all levels, and where it makes the most sense to put effort into policy-making or decision-making. Most officials do the best they can with what information they’ve got and sometimes there are opportunities to engage in an appropriate way to improve policies or decisions, certainly those that are not driven almost exclusively by politics.

If you weren’t in law, what do you think you’d be doing as a career?

The good thing about legal skills is they can be applied in many different functions and roles. They are good skills for decision-making, and I am sure whatever I did outside the law would draw heavily on my legal skills.

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