In conversation with Maria Sopoaga (Auckland Council)

We go ‘across the ditch’ to our Kiwi friends in this blog post with the lovely Maria Sopoaga, Litigation & Dispute Resolution Solicitor at Auckland Council. We met Maria on LinkedIn and love that she went in-house straight away, having just graduated in 2018 with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts (Double Majoring in English & Philosophy) at the University of Auckland. Maria speaks about bursting the law school bubble and going her own way!

TLC: What made you want to study law?

MS: Probably like a lot of law students/lawyers before me, I was a pretty strong-minded kid; I revelled in the idea of making points and arguing them with another person (however wrong I may have been!). I was also a less than average maths and science student so law and arts seemed to be my only viable option. I remember I did my Year 10 work experience at a Hospital and I ended up having to call in sick on the last day because I knew it wasn’t for me!

TLC: Tell us about your journey to how you got to where you are?

MS: The concept of advocacy was never attractive to me until I started at law school; I became aware of New Zealand’s colonial history and the social, economic and cultural inequalities minorities in this country still face because of it. Being at law school increased my social awareness exponentially and made clear what I wanted to do with my platform once I graduated. With this in mind, I got involved in various mentoring and tutoring initiatives at university, all working with Maori and Pacific youth about to make the transition out of high school. While studying, I was a Tuakana Arts mentor, tutoring first year Maori and Pacific students in English, I was also a MATES mentor, a DREAM camp leader and worked with the University’s Schools’ Partnership Office as a NIU mentor, aimed at Maori and Pasifika students transitioning into tertiary study.

It’d be a stretch to say I had any concrete idea of where I was headed after university. The law school “bubble” (as I like to call it) made me think that the only way to succeed was to clerk in one of the big firms.  I reached my penultimate year having not summer/winter clerked anywhere, having focused on my mentoring/tutoring roles and working part time at Glassons for the previous few years.  That year, I had an ‘aha’ moment where I realised that the only reason I was even entertaining the thought of applying to the big firms was because it seemed like everyone around me had been. Nothing about the idea of working at a large commercial firm (at least this early in my career) sparked joy, and I knew I wanted my first few years in the profession to be an enjoyable foundation on which I could build from.  This encouraged me to broaden my conception of a legal career and look into other roles like policy and diplomacy.

I had heard from many graduates/lawyers that practising law is nothing like law school - which I was kind of counting on! I wanted to get out of the classroom, work with others, apply concepts in real life with real people.  I had heard great things about working at Auckland Council from a friend of mine who had interned there the previous summer and I figured I might as well put my name in the mix and apply for one of the legal graduate roles there. I had absolutely no idea about what the Legal department did at Council but I had hoped it would be a great opportunity to apply my legal skills, while working with others in the organisation who weren’t lawyers (I admit that law school left me a little disillusioned about law students, and I was really looking for a job where I could work with people who weren’t all lawyers!)

I was fortunate enough to land the gig at Council, and I haven’t looked back since. Auckland Council is the largest Council in Oceania, with almost 10,000 employees. Because of the organisation’s sheer size, the legal department is quite large (there are around 60-70 lawyers in the Legal department alone, with a number of other non-practising lawyers in other parts of the organisation), and as part of my graduate year I was able to rotate around the 4 teams – Public Law, Property & Commercial, Regulatory & Enforcement and Litigation & Dispute Resolution – and experience the vast variety of legal work available. Most lawyers move in-house later in their careers as their priorities change, which mean there is a gap for junior to intermediate lawyers in this space to pick up on low level legal work. Because of this, I was exposed very early on to interesting and meaningful matters that I could work on from start to finish, an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have experienced as early on in a large firm. In-house experience is a great space for junior lawyers to gain broad business & organisational insight on a macro level, that one would probably not have considered as a junior at a firm. In this respect, I’ve had to look at issues from a variety of different lenses – from a legal perspective, from a business perspective, from an organisational perspective and even from a political perspective. This kind of ‘big picture’ thinking is valuable at any organisation, whether it be a firm or otherwise. 

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A huge positive about working in-house is the fact that (at least for Council) legal does not bill for time. Given this ‘freedom’, senior and principal lawyers are more than willing to work with you on matters and questions that you need some help with, and conversely, you don’t feel burdensome when you ask them any questions or want to sit down with them out of fear that you are wasting precious billable time. All the senior lawyers I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been more than accommodating in assisting me with any questions I have, with most having come into the organisation from large firms themselves. I understand there is a fear that graduates who go straight in-house miss out on valuable training that they would have received at a firm. Again, given Council’s size and reputation, I have been fortunate enough to tag along to our external legal providers’ junior training sessions alongside the law clerks and junior solicitors at those firms. Given her private firm experience, my Manager has been incredibly supportive of my professional development, and has allowed me the opportunity to build my skills broadly and attend a variety of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) seminar’s beyond my team’s specialist focus (Dispute Resolution & Litigation).

 TLC: What is your one piece of advice to law students of today?

MS: Run your own race. As law students, there is a particular image of what a lawyer is “supposed to” look like, but it isn’t true! More than any other generation, young law graduates nowadays are the most empowered to shape the kind of careers they want to pursue. While law school may feel like a long time, a legal career can run for 30+ years, so save yourself the misery and pursue something you’re actually passionate about. On that point, it is not uncommon for lawyers to change their careers midway through, so while you may start in litigation for example, you may find that some other area of law interests you even more later down the line. Remember to be flexible and keep your mind open to new opportunities and challenges that may present themselves along the way.

Run your own race. As law students, there is a particular image of what a lawyer is “supposed to” look like, but it isn’t true! More than any other generation, young law graduates nowadays are the most empowered to shape the kind of careers they want to pursue.