Aasha Foley speaks to NZ Lawyer about the importance of putting the firm’s people first
When Aasha Foley left law school on the heels of the GFC, opportunities for graduates were bleak, but she refused to take her eyes off the prize.
“I knew that all I had to do was get my foot in the door, and from there I’d be able to climb the ladder,” she tells NZ Lawyer.
After taking a position as a trademark and patent secretary with James & Wells, Foley quickly moved into the new commercial team and was subsequently appointed a solicitor. It was a busy time for her, and involved “balancing several positions and working some pretty long hours,” she says.
Even with the challenging schedule and workload, Foley believes her start at James & Wells ultimately paid off.
“Despite coming in at a secretarial level, I was immediately expected to perform and carry out my work as a law clerk,” she explains. “I carried out my initial training with some of the best practitioners in the industry, who have taught me some of the most valuable lessons in my career to date; lessons I pass onto my staff daily.”
On departing James & Wells, Foley worked briefly in another leading Waikato firm before going on to co-found iClaw Culliney Partners with long-time colleague Owen Culliney in 2017.
“As cliché as it sounds, we wanted to do things differently and that required a different mode of transport than your stereotypical law firm: we focused on our staff first and our clients second,” Foley says.
Reminiscing on the firm’s early days, Foley says that she often likened starting a law firm to “buying a zoo” because “it is challenging, all-encompassing, and requires dedication that you cannot fathom.” Nonetheless, she had a clear vision for the firm right from the start.
“We wanted to be a boutique, nationally and internationally recognised practice. We wanted to create a brand,” Foley explains.
She says that although no one can pinpoint when, at some point the firm chose growth mode over remaining small. Now, four years on, the firm has grown from a team of two to a roster of 16, and continues its commitment to finding innovative solutions while honouring the past.
“As a start-up, it’s easy to feel like you need to become big, but being smaller means tighter control on operations and the ability to quickly adapt and take advantage of efficiencies,” Foley says. “The trouble is that clients keep rolling up and we just love to help – we have something that our team and clients like so we’re going to keep doing it!”
With the recent birth of her child, Foley has also had to learn to balance her role as the burgeoning firm’s managing partner with her new role as a mum while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which carried with it an expectation to be “on at all times.”
“When you’re at the office, your priority is staff work and your clients during your allocated hours. Throwing working from home into the midst sees you being pulled in all directions and quite often they are just as important as work too,” she says. “It is challenging, and at times lonely. In a service-based industry, we rely on the presence of our colleagues for out-of-the-box thinking and different approaches for various clients and their needs. Take that away and you do feel you are working in isolation with only your own ideas.”
However, despite the global challenges of the past year, Foley believes the future of the legal profession is extremely bright, describing this generation of lawyers as “not only self-confident, competitive, technologically savvy and ambitious” but also “focused on making a difference on every level – professionally, socially, politically and economically.”
“We’re currently all experiencing generation ‘millennial’. We’re all entrepreneurs,” she says. “As a business, we refuse to accept that ‘things have always been done this way’, and are committed to finding solutions that fit the present, while trying to honour and salute the past.”
Aasha Foley was featured as one of NZ Lawyer’s Rising Stars for 2021.