Wynn Williams partner on becoming an expert in one field – and then rebuilding

Emily Walton talks about re-focussing her practice after 10 years in earthquake litigation

Wynn Williams partner on becoming an expert in one field – and then rebuilding
Emily Walton

One could say that Emily Walton was born to be a lawyer. A fifth-generation practitioner, she saw many in her family go into the law, but at first, she wasn’t convinced that it was what she wanted for herself.

But, as she says, “curiosity is a strong driver,” and the insurance specialist found herself practising in London, Sydney, Christchurch, and even spending a season in-house. Today, she is a seasoned partner at Wynn Williams who’s reshaping her practice after a decade of tackling earthquake litigation.

In this interview, Walton talks about the excitement of working on a new matter, providing support and encouragement to junior lawyers and the value of being vulnerable.

What made you choose a career in law?

Some might say it was sort of inevitable because I'm a fifth-generation lawyer on my Dad's side, so we have a lot of lawyers in our family.  I left New Zealand after about 2 years of general practice and travelled for a bit because I wasn't convinced that I wanted to be a lawyer.  But I had a bit of an epiphany one day while I was living in Ireland, and decided this really was the career path for me and I was ready to get on with it.

So, I moved to London and got a job at what is now Mayer Brown. Back then it was the 10th biggest firm in the UK, and I had two fantastic bosses. We worked in the property litigation space, which also involved some insurance work. I then went to work for an insurance firm in Sydney for a number of years before becoming an in-house lawyer for a global insurance broker.

Knowing that my husband and I  were thinking of coming back to New Zealand, I wanted to expand my repertoire of legal skills to include more commercial experience to broaden my practise for the New Zealand market, and Christchurch in particular.

What's your favourite part of the job?

One is the fact that I love learning – I love not knowing a lot about something and then learning heaps about it quite quickly and really delving into the nitty gritty. Curiosity is a strong driver. A Judge once explained to me that whenever a new proceeding landed on his desk, he would get that birthday present feeling, where you can't wait to open it up and see what it's all about.  This really resonated with me. 

Also, the people – it sounds so trite, but you know you're really involved in people's lives, truly helping them.  And in addition to helping clients professionally, I also am really focused on helping internally within the team and within the firm, to support and encourage junior people..

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

I think there's probably three. . The first is when I was practicing in London, and we acted for Monsanto against a group called Gen X who were destroying Monsanto's genetically modified crops.  We issued injunction proceedings against Gen X, and that proceeding went all the way to the House of Lords.  As just a junior instructing solicitor on quite an important case, that was an amazing experience.

The next would be probably one of the largest cases I worked on back in Sydney.  I acted for a defendant in a case where a young man had  dived off a jetty and tragically suffered injuries causing him to become a C4/C5 tetraplegic.  We were defending his claim for damages.  That one went to the High Court of Australia and was also an enormously interesting and complex case.   I also learnt that it’s possible to feel great sympathy for the plaintiff while your professional responsibilities drive you to do your best for your client defending their claim.

The third one was in New Zealand –I've been heavily involved in earthquake litigation in the High Court Earthquake List here in Christchurch.   I did a lot of claims for a domestic insurer, but also acted for insured building and home owners.  I spent 10 years focusing on that; learning an enormous amount about geotechnical and structural engineering along with construction generally which has been pretty cool. It's very satisfying to become a bit of an expert in a field like that..

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

There are two things that spring to mind. The first is our focus on sustainability and associated initiatives. Recently, we were certified as carbon zero – carbon neutral – which is fantastic. The second is our initiative around diversity and inclusion. Wynn Williams is a forerunner amongst the bigger firms in New Zealand with over 50% of our partners being women.  The next thing is for us to really start focusing on other areas  of diversity and inclusion, LGBTI, ethnicity and age for example.

When I became a partner at Wynn Williams, my daughter was two and I was working part-time.   At that time, the partnership agreement didn’t allow part time partners and it had to be changed for me to become a partner. So, I feel that having been instrumental in that change, I have quite a strong responsibility to keep focusing on it and keep supporting people in that space, making sure everyone has access to the best careers they can.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

We have a series of online offerings, including  online wills, a business legal health check and limited license applications. We’re constantly considering how we can expand those offerings.  

From a personal perspective, however,  while technology is fantastic, I also think that it's really important we prioritise on people, the humanity of us all. Maybe that makes me old-fashioned, but if we become too focused on putting tech first, we lose something, I think.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?

After a decade of earthquake related work, over the past couple of years, I've been moving away from that and starting to develop my practice in a different direction. I’m focusing more on general litigation, defective building claims and professional negligence work..

With COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, and most of the insurers being based in Auckland, it's been a hard slog, but it is happening and it's going pretty well.  And I've had good support from some of our fantastic insurer clients.

What advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

Don't give up and don't listen to that voice in your head that says you can't do that – that won’t work.  Because you can - and you will!

What should the profession and law firms focus more on?

Valuing people, from the most junior in the office to the most senior consultant who has moved beyond partnership and everyone in between. We spend so much time connected to work now, it's really important to recognise that we have a responsibility to look after our people, to try and give them a safe and happy space to spend at least 50% of their lives 

We have a formal mentoring arrangement here, but it’s important to just make yourself available, make yourself vulnerable and talk frankly about things that you're struggling with or that you have struggled with so that people feel able to call or come into your office and say, “hey, I'm really struggling with this”, or ask “what do you think I should do about this?” I think in some ways, that's a positive that's come out of COVID-19 because before, most tended to pay a bit of lip service to wellbeing, with little real proactivity or action.

But COVID-19 brought wellbeing to the forefront of our minds – and the importance of looking after each other especially people who are struggling.  And that's got to be good long term, I hope.

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?

I think access to justice and the cost of litigation is something that is a real problem. And it's something that I know the profession is aware of, but we don't seem to be able to find a really effective way of mitigating against it. At the moment, a lot of good cases need to be heard – a precedent-based legal system becomes unhealthy if only those with resources can litigate.  The types of decisions delivered become skewed in a certain direction; so the case law isn't reflective of everything that's going on in society.

We have litigation funders funding litigation, but so often, class actions actually don't necessarily result in returns for that plaintiff or the class that perhaps it should have, because even then the costs of litigating are prohibitive.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

I'm looking forward to going overseas, and I'm looking forward to my practice continuing to grow in the direction I'm developing in now. It's interesting being at this stage in my career, having been a real expert in something – and then rebuilding. It's hard, but it's rewarding, and that's exciting.

I want to be able to ensure that I am able to give my team - who are fantastic - really good work so that they’re engaged and stimulated.

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