In an audacious move, Wellington employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk left a high profile partnership with high profile lawyer Mai Chen in 2013 to start her own practice. Now, this young up-and-comer has gone on to become one of most high profile women in New Zealand law.
LawFuel contributor Rosel Labone talks with Dundas Street Legal employment lawyer and Dominon Post columnist Susan Horsby-Geluk about what it’s like to fly high.
Why did you decide to start your own company and leave established law firms?
There are several possible answers to this. Firstly, employment law lends itself to the “boutique firm”. The large firm model is based on leverage, i.e. having a certain number of junior staff working to each partner. I do not think this model works well for Employment law because what clients generally need is practical and strategic advice now – not lengthy legal opinions.
So whilst there is always an important place for junior staff, the better approach in my view is to have mainly senior lawyers who can do the doing, and can become trusted advisers to our clients.
Secondly, I saw an opportunity to establish a firm in which we truly worked together as a team. We do not have personal budgets and we do not own clients – every person does whatever it takes to make the boat go faster. The way we measure achievement is different and I believe the approach is far more collaborative and supportive as a result.
Thirdly, I knew we could do it. I knew that our staff and clients were loyal and would follow and that we had a solid foundation for establishing the firm. I was also strongly supported by my partner Helen who is far more business focused than I – she gave me the courage and the confidence to make the jump. Even better, she takes care of the business aspects of running the business – which leaves my law partner Blair and I clear to focus on the legal practice.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in establishing a boutique firm in New Zealand,
as a female entrepreneur and lawyer?
Dundas Street can’t just be about one person, that’s why we gave it a neutral name.
It has been critical to have partners that I can trust, and a team that is capable of, and empowered to, deliver excellence.
Did you choose employment law, or did it choose you?
I loved employment law right from the start and so chose to pursue it.
It requires a full range of skills, and is extremely varied – one day I can be providing complex and strategic legal advice and the next arguing about what happened at the work Christmas party in mediation.
What are your hobbies outside the office?
I balance an hour of exercise every day with a healthy dose of wine and chips which I consume while honing my legal skills by watching series such as “Better Call Saul” and “Boston Legal”.
What is the highlight of career to date?
I experience small highlights on a regular basis – for example last week after getting an employee client out of a particularly tricky situation, she emailed me to thank me and called me her “White Knight”. That was actually touching.
Who inspires you?
I have read a number of sports biographies recently and am always inspired and astounded by how far top athletes are prepared to push themselves to be the best.
There are plenty of women starting out in law – we just need to make it easier for them to stay in there and progress into senior roles
What really gets you upset in employment law?
The abuse of power – legally sanctioned bullying. I have seen many instances where a party has used economic power to drive the other party into submission, irrespective of the merits of the case, or considerations of fairness.
Have you directly faced discrimination in the legal profession?
I haven’t personally experienced discrimination. In fact, I think I confuse everyone as I don’t really conform to anyone’s expectations about what a lawyer should look like. Then by the time they have caught their breath I have dazzled them with my brilliance
How do you feel about older workers being coerced into early retirement?
Many employers deal poorly with managing career transition for older workers. Instead of engaging in respectful and transparent discussions about mutual expectations, some employers do nothing right up until the point that they decide that the employee has to go, and now! I struggle with these cases as I believe that everyone, and in particular older workers who have given long and loyal service, should be treated with respect.
In most instances, engaging in a constructive way with an employee at an early stage, will result in a mutually acceptable outcome.
We now accept that exceptional lawyers may come in all shapes and sizes, and genders, but there is still a need to move beyond these initial assumptions and stereotypes
How can the statistics for the number of women in New Zealand law firms improve in your view?
There are plenty of women starting out in law – we just need to make it easier for them to stay in there and progress into senior roles.
Can having a family fit with the billable hour?
Having my own children isn’t a choice I have made. As a step parent my partner has been primarily responsible for child rearing and all things cooking and cleaning related. This has allowed me to have a singular focus on my career.
Of our 6 lawyers, 4 have children. I can see it’s not easy, both fathers and mothers struggle with balancing those demands. Working mothers in particular often still have the primary responsibility for childcare, but as a result, my observation is that they are incredibly organised and focussed when they are at work.
Are things getting better for women in the legal profession? What needs to change?
I believe there is still an unconscious bias prevalent within both the business community and more generally which suggests that a successful lawyer is a tall, good looking man in a suit, with a deep and authoritative sounding voice. It is therefore far easier for a man to appear impressive, than it may be for a woman.
We now accept that exceptional lawyers may come in all shapes and sizes, and genders, but there is still a need to move beyond these initial assumptions and stereotypes.
The other challenge is in embracing part time work and flexible working arrangements. Traditionally the lawyers who have been promoted in firms have been those who have been prepared to work all god’s hours and pull in buckets of money. Surely these things can be achieved and measured in a proportionate manner for people who work part time.
Many firms say that they are family friendly, but the fact remains that women are missing in action when it comes to senior leadership roles. It is also concerning that many women who work part time end up working significantly more than their contracted hours and so proportionately are rewarded less than their counterparts.
What challenges do women in law face in the 21st Century?
I still struggle with anything to do with my computer – I don’t think it’s just because I’m a woman though.
Where do you see the outlook for female lawyers in New Zealand heading in 10-15 years?
Technology is making where you work largely irrelevant. Our firm takes advantage of this to maximise the opportunities for participation by our team, such that an ailing child or a teacher only day doesn’t have to be a show stopper.
In terms of where we might be in 10-15 years, it is likely that some areas of law may become disinter-mediated, but employment law is largely about people and computers will struggle to deliver the advisory and strategic elements of what we do.
Where do you see yourself in ten years/ what’s your next career move?
When I am done with building my empire, which currently involves acting mainly for employers, I would actually like to see if I can make a difference to the union movement. I think that there is an important place for unions in representing employees and bargaining for wages, but the approach taken is often very short sighted.
What I mean by this is that many unions seem to go for immediate gains rather than fostering good faith and sustainable relationships with employers, and contributing to the development of positive workplaces in a strategic way. So, I might jump over the fence for a bit if they will take me.