Nicole Lim-Kwan encourages lawyers to "not be so hard on themselves"
Nicole Lim-Kwan was going to be a full-time musician, and a law degree was only going to be a stepping stone towards achieving that goal.
However, the pursuit of social justice gripped her, and she found herself considering a career in policy. Today, as a senior lawyer in the Ministry of Social Development’s public law team, Lim-Kwan enjoys a role that combines her “legal roots” with the ability to still be involved in policy projects.
In this interview, Lim-Kwan talks about the importance of asking for help, being the sole member of NZ Asian Women Lawyers to be based in Wellington, and how she’d defend Marvel’s Loki in court.
What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?
I didn’t start off wanting to do law as a career. It was actually my parents who had insisted that I take up law in university as I had participated a lot in public speaking and debate competitions from a young age. However, I had actually wanted to pursue a career as a musician.
After much back-and-forth with my parents on what I should study at university, I finally relented and chose a BA/LLB degree. I told myself: “once I graduate with a law degree, I can just pursue being a musician full time”.
Clearly, that never happened. While undertaking my degree, I started becoming more and more interested and invested in social justice movements. From there, I started investigating policy as a potential career option. However, given that I was based in Auckland at the time and the lack of policy roles there, I ended up practicing as a lawyer upon graduation – first in conveyancing and then as a defence lawyer with the Auckland Public Defence Service.
It was in that latter role that really made me excited about being a lawyer. As nerdy as it sounds, I love being able to critically analyse a situation/piece of work. I also love being able to interact with diverse clients and to help make a positive difference (whether small or big) in their lives.
Although I eventually moved on to policy or policy-adjacent roles, I found that I really missed aspects of being a lawyer, and so I returned to my “legal roots” in my current role. As an in-house lawyer for the Ministry of Social Development, my current role “fuels” my love of critical analysis and interaction with diverse clients/teams in the Ministry. Further, I am grateful to be in a role that enables me to provide advice on, and help formulate, various policy projects which make a positive impact in the lives of the Ministry’s clients.
What is going on at NZ Asian Lawyers? Can you tell us more about your role and the work that you do with the organisation?
I am a relatively new member of the NZ Asian Women Lawyers, a subcommittee of the NZ Asian Lawyers. We have been hard at work this year organising various events that provide an opportunity for Asian women lawyers to connect with one another. We recently had an event, on the 20th of September, which was a panel event covering practical tips on career-planning, pay negotiations, and reviews.
So far, I am the only member based in Wellington so I would be keen to further explore how this group and its events can be expanded to other Asian women lawyers throughout New Zealand. At the same time, if there are any Asian women lawyers based in Wellington who are interested in joining our group, I would be more than happy to connect!
Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
I am interested in mentoring programmes or connection opportunities for law students, particularly for female Asian students. Also, opportunities for more diverse law organisations or law firms to have more of a presence at universities. When I was in university, we were commonly exposed to the big, well-known, law firms and because of that, I was simply not aware of the range of government legal or legal-policy roles available for example. I think exposing students to a diverse range of legal roles across different fields will be beneficial so that students might not have the mistaken perception of there only being career opportunities for certain types of legal roles in limited firms.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
I started in my current role last year and it was an area of law that I hadn’t practiced in before. This made me very nervous about disappointing myself and my team members. I kept this to myself however because I didn’t want to seem incompetent and so, spent an immense amount of time and effort over every single piece of work that I was assigned. On top of that, I also had an extremely busy year last year in terms of my personal life – I moved houses, planned an overseas wedding, and got married. Because of that I became quite burned out.
Eventually, I came to realise that lawyers are not made to work in isolation and that asking for help and support does not make me incompetent whatsoever. Law is ultimately a collaborative exercise and this means that I should not shoulder the burden and stresses of being a lawyer alone. Instead, as lawyers, we can look to our team members (and on a wider scale, the legal profession as a whole) for support, whether it be support/collaboration on a piece of work or for wellbeing support.
What should the legal profession focus more on?
I think lawyers should aim to not be so hard on themselves. There is this common misperception in society that lawyers are these all-knowing beings and certainly, that was a perception I had held even during my time at law school. Because of this, I think lawyers tend to always strive for perfection and while there is nothing wrong with that, constantly having that mindset could drive us to feel stressed and burdened, and work long hours. I think it’s important for the legal profession to remember that lawyers are still human at the end of the day and that it’s okay if we sometimes fall short.
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 biggest challenge I face is ensuring that any proposed law or law change is one that the public can easily understand. Traditionally, legislation contained a lot of legalese which made it hard for the public to understand their rights and obligations, and potentially contributed to public apathy and disengagement from the law. In recent times, there has been a move towards using plain English in legislation. However, legalese still creeps in on occasion primarily due to complex legal concepts that can’t quite be explained as well using plain English. I hope that the legal industry can continue working on overcoming this challenge as, in my view, the law is for the people and so ultimately should be formulated and structured in a way that the public can understand.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I am looking forward to taking on more mentoring or coaching opportunities, where possible. I am very much keen to help students and new lawyers to not only understand what being a lawyer is like and what that involves, but also how to have a good work-life balance and deal with the stresses that inevitably come with being a lawyer.
If you had to defend a fictional antagonist/villain in court, who would you pick, and why?
I’m a huge Marvel fan so I have to go with Loki. I think he is an interesting character! He is mostly known as a villain, but he has also done quite a few heroic acts throughout his time in the Marvel universe. Of course, these heroic acts don’t offset the horrific things that he has done (I don’t know if any act(s) can really offset an invasion of Earth!), but it does show that he is a man of many layers and can’t simply be categorised as being “good” or “evil”. His background and upbringing is also a pretty complex and sympathetic one, and while it does not excuse his offending it certainly provides us with an insight as to why Loki is the way that he is. By advocating for a sentence that addresses the underlying causes of his crimes, we can not only restore the victims affected, but also restore Loki himself.