Name: Katie Cowan
Job title: Director / Lawyer
Employer, city/country: Cowan Litigation, Symphony Law Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand
Length of time in current role: 2 years
Where and when you studied law: University of Canterbury, graduating 2009/2010
Describe a typical day in your job?
I work in my own boutique litigation practice and split my time between lay clients from the general public and junior assistance for senior barristers. I do exclusively civil litigation, which day to day boils down to undertaking research and advice, corresponding over disputes, reviewing documents for litigation and disputes, and preparing documents for court (applications, evidence, memoranda and submissions). Occasionally I attend court for settlement conferences or procedural hearings, but I tend to brief out substantive hearings to the barristers I work with. I meet with clients for instructions but do most of my work via email and phone. On alternate Mondays I edit and release episodes of The New Lawyer podcast. Because I work in my own practice I can bring my dog to work, work the hours that suit me best, and sing/listen to music while I work. No two days are the same.
I am in the process of changing my practice to one that keeps the barrister-based work I did previously but replaces the public client-facing work with legal writing.
How did you get into this job?
I summer clerked at a national firm over the 2008/2009 summer, then went on to law clerk in the litigation team there before moving to a different national firm’s litigation team. By 2014 I had become a little disillusioned with big law and wanted to practise differently, so I qualified to practise on my own account and opened Symphony Law in early 2015.
Are there particular study subjects or working experience you would recommend to prepare for a similar role to yours?
There are two parts to my job: practising in the civil litigation area and running your own business.
With regard to litigation, I studied political science and specialized in international law and tax. None of that has been directly relevant to my practice, though it made me happy at the time, which was important. I would imagine that doing the skills-based papers at university (mooting, negotiation, and evidence) would be useful in practice, but I have had success without them. I found my experience in big firm civil litigation teams invaluable, since it trained me well and exposed me to a broad range of litigation matters. I know it has also made it easier for clients to take a punt on me despite my age because they can have faith in the quality of my training and experience.
If you want to run your own practice, personal qualities like a sense of adventure and a tolerance for risk are likely to take you further than particular papers at university. The best thing you can do is know yourself very well, know why you want to do it, and read voraciously about business and financial management (ideally finding that fun). I got far more from doing self-directed learning and paying attention to real life businesses and law practices than I did from the academic study of business.
What are the highlights of the job?
In short, authenticity, autonomy and fun. I get to do good work in my own way and serve clients that might not otherwise be served. I have extraordinary autonomy, which allows me to practise where, when, how and how much I want. I also have the independence to do work like The New Lawyer, which I could not have done while still employed by a firm. Finally, I love design and big picture thinking, and find I get so much fun from the business strategy and development side of my practice, something you don’t get in most law jobs.
What are the challenges of the job?
There is much higher uncertainty and risk than there is in an employed role. You cannot be certain of work streams (and therefore financial streams). You are also responsible for everything: doing the work, of course, but also all administration work, business development work, IT management and financial management. I love that but many lawyers hate it. Working alone requires a level of motivation and organization, and a broader range of skills, that being an employed lawyer does not, and you will get isolated if you do not make the effort to connect with other lawyers. As the principal you are also responsible for the correctness of the advice, something you can avoid for many years if you stay in a firm. The added responsibility, isolation and risk ups the stress, and takes some adjustment. A willingness to reflect regularly and adjust course helps with all these challenges.
What kind of personal qualities are suited to this job?
For litigation: In my experience litigators tend to be introverts who love puns, but even if they are not they are curious, enjoy the process of figuring things out (puzzlers make good litigators), and have high standards and persnickety attention to detail. Note that I am a litigator that is hardly ever in court, which is not uncommon, so do not be put off if you are afraid of that aspect. (And if you are afraid of court – take improv classes!)
For running your own business: A deep self-knowledge, including ownership of your strengths, flaws and weaknesses; an affection for change, risk and variety; a preference for big picture views; a desire to stretch yourself and learn skills outside the lawyer’s usual toolbox; an enthusiasm for personal growth; a capacity to manage stress and avoid burnout; an optimistic outlook; a vision for something you want to change or achieve (that is, a deep and clear “why”); and finally, a cheerful conviction that you can do it, even if people say you can’t (a little naivete can be surprisingly helpful).
What one thing do you wish someone had told you at law school?
You don’t have to practise law in the way everyone expects; the world needs lawyers who are not like everyone else. Seriously.
Any other advice for law students wanting to get into a similar role?
On the sole practice side: I know I am repeating myself, but know yourself very well. Read everything you can get your hands on and pay attention to the ideas that light you up. Spend your first five years learning as much as you can about law and professionalism from the people around you. Get a grasp on the financial side of things as early as humanly possible (that’s a life tip too). And when the time comes, don’t be too comfortable to make the leap.