An evening with Miriam Dean QC

By Rima Shenoy, EJP representative on ADLS’ Criminal Law Committee, and member of the University of Auckland Women in Law group

At the close of last year, ADLS hosted a number of students from the University of Auckland Women in Law group, who gathered for an evening with Miriam Dean CNZM QC.

The night was a wonderful opportunity for those who are embarking on their own legal careers to have the benefit of Ms Dean QC’s advice and experience.

The Women in Law group is a collection of students and alumni dedicated to addressing gender issues at the University of Auckland Law School and within the wider profession. Ms Dean QC’s values and mission statement for the “Leading Your Career” series of workshops for women lawyers (which she and Catapult ran in conjunction with ADLS in 2017), aligned closely with those of the group, and the evening was a high note on which to end the group’s activities for the year. These included a Pink Ribbon Breakfast, the Jane Doe Play at Q Theatre, the Feminine Hygiene Product Drive, and the Trailblazers Speaker Series.

As the first female partner at Russell McVeagh, Ms Dean QC is an example of someone who has broken the glass ceiling for women lawyers in New Zealand. She related the story of how, when she was appointed partner, the notice of her partnership was printed on pink paper by a very supportive and charming photocopying department colleague. It was a quiet but proud nod of approval from the women in the firm, lawyers and support staff alike.

As hopeful lawyers, the students were keen to hear Ms Dean QC’s views on why a shift towards greater diversity has not happened at a more rapid pace? Why are there still so few women partners at law firms? Why aren’t more women setting up their own practices?

Ms Dean QC’s answers centred around the need to “re-define success”.

Law school (wherever you attend) and the legal profession can both be very insular environments. And while being a partner of a large law firm is often endorsed as the hallmark of success, Ms Dean QC reminded the students that her career has spanned many areas of the law. As she put it, once she became a barrister, her career stopped moving in a linear fashion and turned “squiggly”. She describes this as “the best thing that could have happened”, because it broadened the opportunities available to her and brought her to a point where she can now focus on the work she enjoys best – her directorships.

Today, there are more women in the law than ever before. Women can restructure the trajectory for young lawyers or, more importantly, the trajectories on which they set themselves. Success need not solely be defined by making partner or having the highest salary. Success can be meaningful work that has a positive impact, balanced with a fulfilling personal life.

Ms Dean QC noted that “imposter syndrome” is something women face on a daily basis, and that second-guessing one’s capabilities can be “a blessing and a curse”. It will make you work twice as hard, thus producing excellent results – but it may also hold you back from taking those unique opportunities which will distinguish you.

While sceptical of the term at first, Ms Dean QC now swears by the “fake it until you make it” rule, although she does prefer Amy Cuddy’s modification to the phrase: “fake it until you become it”. Seizing possibilities as they arrive opens up a range of opportunities you may not have envisioned if you had followed a typical career path. She advised attendees to “feel the fear but do it anyway”, and to take the challenging and sometimes scary jobs. Those who do will be leading by example – showing others that success can be “squiggly”.

The students and Ms Dean QC also discussed the future of women in the workplace, as more women enter the legal profession. Living in a culture where women are often pitted against each other, it is important that women find mentors to guide them through the pitfalls and stresses of practising law. Ms Dean QC’s advice to the group was to connect with a mentor to bounce ideas off and get advice from. Women helping women is a key step toward shifting culture within the legal profession.

The University of Auckland Women in Law group would like to thank both Miriam Dean QC and ADLS for their support of this event