For Steven Kent-Smith, law firms must focus on training, and junior lawyers must focus on learning
Steven Guy Kent-Smith grew up wanting to become an aeronautical engineer, before a severe dislike of maths and physics caused him to pivot towards the business world instead. A course in first-year law made him fall in love with the profession, and today, he gets the best of both worlds as a corporate and commercial solicitor at Anthony Harper’s Auckland office.
Having qualified just last year, Kent-Smith knows he has a lot to learn, and he has made a point of doing so from the experts at the firm. Law firms, he said, need focus on taking the time to train graduates in the actual practice of law, while junior lawyers need to take the time to digest and learn from such training.
In this interview, Kent-Smith talks about adjusting to remote work during lockdown, the support he received from his supervising partner at the firm and getting “stand up suddenly at my desk excited” when he can be the bearer of good news to a client.
What made you choose a career in law?
My story is a little unconventional. From about the age of 13, I wanted to become an aeronautical engineer. However, after a year of study at university I discovered that I severely disliked studying maths and physics and could not see myself practicing as an engineer. I decided to finally take my father's advice and pursue a career in business, but knowing that there are over 5,000 Bachelor of Commerce graduates in New Zealand every year, I would need some way to differentiate myself.
I enrolled in first-year law as it was only two extra subjects, so if I disliked it I would not have invested too much time. However I surprised even myself when I loved the study of law!
What do you love most about your job?
I'm a corporate and commercial solicitor, so we have a good mix of advisory and transactional work. Advisory work is great because you're given a problem and a blank sheet of paper and you have to come up with a solution specific to your client's situation. I also enjoy the fast-paced nature of transactional work. Transactional work is less “legal,” in that you're working to achieve certain objectives as opposed to solving legal problems. I personally find transactional work more rewarding; once a deal settles (usually) everyone is all smiles and wants to celebrate. It certainly makes up for the stress!
A common theme between transactional and advisory work is helping people achieve their objectives: be it buying or selling something (in the case of transactional work), or advising somebody on whether what they want to do is legal (in the case of advisory work). I often find myself getting excited (like, stand up suddenly at my desk excited) when I know I can deliver someone good news, despite the fact that I (usually) haven't met them in person (and likely never will). It's a great feeling knowing I've added value for that person.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
I am particularly proud of Anthony Harper's response to COVID-19, particularly the support it has offered to all of us. We were kept well-informed, we were frequently asked how we were feeling (and how that could be improved) and we were given access to plenty of resources to improve our mental health. My supervising partner would phone me periodically throughout the day to see how I was doing and whether I needed help with anything. All of this greatly reduced any unease I may have had about work. Alex, if you're reading this, your support was greatly appreciated.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
The biggest lesson I learned as a junior lawyer is that everybody can teach you something and that when they do, take the time to digest it and learn from it. As a corporate lawyer, our work often touches on other areas of the law, be it property, dispute resolution, or intellectual property (to name but a few). I am very fortunate at Anthony Harper that we have experts in all of those fields, and I have made a point of learning about their field from them so that I will be better equipped to handle similar problems if they were to arise in the future.
My advice to fellow junior lawyers would be this: when you need to ask somebody a question about a problem in their field, bring a note pad with you and do what you can to understand why they gave the answer they did, as opposed to just applying that answer and moving on.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
As a junior lawyer, I have found that law school teaches you almost nothing about the actual practice of law, so I think law firms really need to focus on taking the time to train graduates. I've found I've learned the most when I've been presented with a task and some pointers, then have had a patient mentor take the time to explain why things are done a certain way. I've found Anthony Harper to be great in that regard.
What has been the biggest challenge you and your practice has faced amid the pandemic?
For me, the biggest challenge was working remotely during Level 4. While the commute was certainly better, it was tough being cut off from the rest of the team. Getting a second opinion on problems took longer and the social aspect of the workplace was missing. Going from seeing each all week to only over Zoom was a weird feeling, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to see everyone again in person when we returned from Level 4.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
It sounds trite, but I truly enjoy being exposed to new challenges and then using what I have learned in future projects. I get great satisfaction out of recognising a problem!