Edwards Law senior associate wanted to be a dolphin trainer

Due to the lack of a market for her dream occupation, Madeleine Lister ended up becoming an employment law star

Edwards Law senior associate wanted to be a dolphin trainer
Madeleine Lister

Madeleine Lister’s dream job for many years was to become a dolphin trainer. But given the lack of demand for such a role, she ended up getting nudged into law due to her aptitude for arguing.

She may not be training dolphins, but Lister ended up learning to manage staff in her role at Edwards Law, where she was recently promoted to senior associate. Over the past 12 months, she has provided support to team members, overseen work and delegated tasks by following her mother’s advice to practise the Golden Rule.

In this April interview, Lister talks setting proper boundaries with clients, monthly foodie dinners in Auckland, and sending fan mail to Steve Irwin.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

Unfortunately, I have to give the classic answer for this – my parents told me I was good at arguing and they not so subtly steered me into studying law at the University of Otago. Truth be told, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer for many years but sadly, there wasn’t really a market for that in New Zealand.

Employment law is great in the way that it allows you to experience a variety of workplaces/industries, meaning every single day at work is different. That said, my favourite part of the job is definitely the people in the firm. We have a really tightknit, collaborative and supportive team at Edwards Law. Coming to work every day with people who I call my friends is pretty special.

I also have some really great clients who I advise on an ongoing basis, and I enjoy building rapport and being able to assist them with an array of issues as and when they crop up.

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

We have just opened a Hawkes Bay office, so the expansion of the firm into this region is very exciting. On a more social level, this year the girls in the Auckland office have been doing a monthly dinner at different restaurants across the city, because we are all major foodies!

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

With our firm expanding, we are placing more and more reliance on things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It might sound mundane, but I find our Microsoft Teams Workflow software incredibly useful, as you can see the entire firm’s “to do list” and tick off tasks as you complete them. I think I would be lost without it!

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 have learned in the past year has to be around managing staff. As I progress through the organisation, I am taking on more responsibility for supporting other members of the team, supervising work and delegating tasks that come in. This is most certainly a skill that is honed over time (and I am still learning), but the biggest piece of advice that I can give in this area is to reflect on how you like being managed/supervised and try to replicate this in the way that you manage others. As my mother always said, “treat others as you wish to be treated”.  

What should the profession focus more on?

In my view, the profession should place more of a focus on encouraging the setting of boundaries with clients. Servicing client needs is obviously an incredibly important part of the job (and it is what makes a business successful); however, no one really talks about the importance of maintaining those workplace boundaries and (politely) saying “no” (or “not today”) where the client’s expectations are too high.

I find that so often clients want things done immediately, and they forget that they are just one of many clients you need to assist. Being able to satisfy client expectations but also maintain boundaries, so you can, for example, take a day of leave without being on your emails all day, is also incredibly important. I do think we will see significant developments in the area of “lawyer wellbeing” in the years to come.

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?

In the employment sphere where we practice, I find that the relatively low awards given out by the Employment Relations Authority can be a huge barrier to employees progressing their cases. If you know that your actual legal costs could well dwarf any compensation/costs award that you receive, why bother taking a claim? In my view, legal costs awards (which at present, are based on a relatively low daily tariff), are out of step with the realities of taking a claim all the way to the Authority. This discourages applicants from taking a case (despite sometimes having a very good one) and it does often incentivise difficult, cost driving behaviour from the other side. This is a challenge we encounter on an almost daily basis. 

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

This year, I am really looking forward to having more responsibility/oversight in my senior associate role and hopefully, spending more time in the office rather than working from home!

If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?

Without a doubt, Steve Irwin. I used to watch him on TV as a child and occasionally sent him fan mail. I remember being completely shocked and saddened by his death (so much so that I incorporated his death into my year 8 speech on stingrays). I think Steve would have some wild tales to tell.

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