“There's more to lawyers than whether they do the ‘deal of the year’,” Wendy Chen says
In what she calls “a turbulent and unsettling time”, Wendy Chen has been learning lessons about accepting what is beyond her control. As she looks forward to 2021, the former Air New Zealand legal counsel, who joined Juno Legal earlier this year, says that she has come to anticipate the unpredictability of the coming year as “fresh and invigorating.”
While Chen applauds the innovation and adaptability that she has observed in the legal profession over the past year, she stresses how people must remain the focus of the industry, and firms must look beyond just outputs and billable hours.
In this interview, Chen talks about being intentional in making life choices, praying the serenity prayer, adapting to the new generation of “increasingly disengaged” lawyers and the feeling of whanaungatanga at Juno Legal.
What made you choose a career in law?
I believe that making choices with what you do with your life should an active, intentional act – not a one-off, set-and-forget kind of decision. Even if a person stayed in one profession or job their whole life, that is a choice they are making every day. When your career path becomes passive and unintentional, that's what we call a rut! And most people don't feel good about that.
My own motivations for choosing to be a lawyer have changed over the years, and there have been periods in my life where I have chosen not to be a lawyer. While I originally started a legal career because that was what my 21-year-old-self believed was the most prestigious and best financial path I could aspire to, these days my decision factors are more about juggling various, sometimes contradictory, desires: a sense of satisfaction of meeting a challenge, time and energy for my diverse interests, an opportunity to influence and help people and, let's be honest, saving for my retirement!
What do you love most about your job?
That rather than subscribing to a fixed, one-size-fits-all model of full-time employment, I get to set the boundaries and create space for juggling those desires on my own terms. My boss and Juno founder, Helen Mackay, struck a chord with me when she expressed how she values diverse experiences and backgrounds, and how she encourages Juno lawyers to see themselves as “lawyer plus.” With Juno, I have opportunities to dive into different industries and learn from dealing with a range of people and situations. I also get to hold on to my identities other than “lawyer.”
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
I've only recently joined Juno, and what I really appreciate is that there is a genuine feeling of whanaungatanga, even though all the Juno lawyers are out on their different assignments and we are geographically spread across the country. There is a culture of sharing knowledge and expertise. Juno really leans in to connecting Aotearoa’s in-house lawyers, with activities such as the GC Conversations series and the Juno Counsel newsletters profiling in-house teams and leaders.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
This year has been a year of many lessons for us all! I love the Irish serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” For me, especially this year, learning this lesson has been about acceptance of things outside of my control, or caring a little less and giving less energy to those things – and trying to cultivate my own pocket of serenity or Zen in a turbulent and unsettling time. It's also been inspiring to see examples of innovativeness and adaptability in the profession, things that the legal profession might not have always been known for.
What should the profession and law firms focus more on?
People. People are multidimensional, complex and unique. If you deny this about yourself, how can you accept this of others? We know that it is important as lawyers to build relationships in order to provide quality service to clients. We also value teamwork and collegiality in the profession. Yet traditional measures of success have been around outputs rather than our attitude and engagement with the process. There's more to lawyers than whether they do the “deal of the year.” There's more to our clients and our colleagues than billable hours as proxy for value.
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?
A challenge for the legal profession is how to adapt to the new generation of lawyers, who feel increasingly disengaged. Many young and intermediate lawyers have told me that there are not many senior lawyer role models whose career journeys resonate with them or inspire them. How can we create a model of success that can attract and retain a more diverse pool of talent? What if parental leave was not seen as a hindrance to career progression? In what ways can we challenge frameworks which value behaviours that aren't necessarily good for our mental health? How can we leverage and embrace the new ways of working that have become necessary during the pandemic, and use this opportunity to provide flexibility and a better quality of life?
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
I heard some very wise words this year from one of my fellow board trustees for an arts charity: “A time of change is a good time to change.” Things are unpredictable on a macro scale, and a positive of this is that new opportunities will arise as we respond and adapt. The inability to really plan for the future can be a call to live more in the present; I see the unknowns for the coming year as fresh and invigorating.