Jonathon Eaton, high-profile lawyer and Queen’s Counsel, spoke to LawFuel reporters Kate Green and Rachel Moore about the media, mentoring young lawyers, and maintaining a balance between work and family.
Jonathan Eaton, 55, has spent 30 years as a lawyer and six years as a Queen’s counsel, and is currently based at Bridgeside Chambers in Christchurch. Over the course of his career he has seen the industry change in relation to the media, education, and technology, and is concerned about narrowing opportunities afforded to young lawyers.
Eaton went to school in Christchurch and had always planned to go to university but didn’t have any firm ideas about what to do there. He was more inclined towards languages than sciences, and as law was only one paper, he decided to take that along with some of his friends. At the end of the first year, his grade in the legal systems paper surprised him.
“I thought, well, maybe I’ve stumbled onto something which I have a bit of an affinity with and that was enough incentive for me to sort of jump head-on in from there and I never really looked back.”
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Alongside his illustrious law career, mentoring up-and-coming lawyers is a passion project of Eaton’s. “I do try and surround myself with lots of new graduates and young lawyers who are enthusiastic, [and] far more skilled in research side of things than I am.”
So often law graduates end up securing a job, perhaps in a big city or a big firm, “in a back room, not seeing clients, certainly not seeing court,” which causes them to doubt their reasons for being there.
He urges young lawyers not to get stuck in a role they don’t enjoy. “I always encourage them to go back to that flickering flame which gets diluted throughout the course of their studies,” he said.
He encourages them to be bold enough to make potentially career-changing decisions, always follow their passion, and remember that their reputation is everything. If you sacrifice that with shortcuts, it will always come back to haunt you, he says.
Failings in University Curriculum
As a guest lecturer at the University of Canterbury, Eaton is concerned about the failings of the current university curriculum. The law of evidence is no longer a compulsory subject at Canterbury, which concerns Eaton.
“If you don’t study evidence at university, then you’re far less likely to choose a career path which involves litigation.”
Watch the Lawuel Interview with Jonathan Eaton QC Below
Litigation is what usually leads to advocacy, which can lead to a career at the independent bar, which is the path Eaton took. With alternative dispute resolution options like mediation and arbitration, students aren’t getting as much experience in court.
Because of this, a career as what used to be called a ‘common lawyer’ based on written and oral advocacy is under jeopardy because of a lack of pathways into court.
Whether you’re starting out or an experienced lawyer, everyone should have somebody to talk outside their employment team who they can speak to when things are getting tough or bounce ideas off and talk about the worries that they have, he says.
At Bridgeside Chambers there are eight barristers and three support staff, and Eaton says they’re in and out of each other’s offices a lot.
“That’s the de-stressing, that’s the bouncing of ideas, it’s talking with colleagues, sharing the load and having people challenging you on your thought processes about how you run a case.”
“I worry about guys who are completely on their own in practice who are somewhat isolated and dealing with all the stresses and strains of being a defence lawyer,” says Eaton.
The profession has good strategies to reach out to those people but it requires people to seek them out. His best advice for young lawyers is to get mentors, surround themselves with experienced people, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Sharing War Stories
In Eaton’s experience, most lawyers are happy to share stories and give advice. “We’ve all have had experiences, we all share our war stories.”
The one question he always gets is how ‘he are you able to defend potentially guilty people’?
He says, “The reality is, I’ve dealt with some pretty serious stuff over the years but if I lose sleep it’s not about the person or what I think the person has done, it’s only about the responsibility of ensuring there’s a just outcome for them.”
For him, it came quite naturally and instinctively for him and that’s been helpful in his career. ”In terms of ensuring you remain objective and independent and that you don’t get too emotionally wound up in it all.”
Law and the Media
Eaton’s biggest “bugbear” is the increased media interest in the profession. He remembers the days when media had the resources to dedicate full time court reporters who wrote balanced and clear articles. These days the media is under-resourced and too focussed on getting a good story.
“It’s in for a minute, get a headline, leave,” he says.
He has a love-hate relationship with the media and thinks a lot of the coverage is “shallow” and “salacious.”
“There are lots of intriguing, interesting, and complicated issues but they take a bit of a roll-your-sleeves-up and do some hard yards to be able to deal with them,” he says. Yet journalists are often unable to engage at the level where lawyers and journalists can work together, and instead work parallel to each other.
Eaton says defence lawyers are unfairly maligned in the media, but when people are in trouble themselves they often change their mind. “Every time I see someone saying that, I want to get them in a one-on-one and say, ‘You wait till you or your partner or your son or your daughter or your neighbour gets accused and you think the process is unfair.’”
Eaton received some media attention in 2013 when the story of his ‘unlucky’ suit was reported by Stuff. The navy blue pinstripe suit bore witness to a string of unlucky events for Eaton.
He was wearing the notorious suit when he a man jumped from a parking building and died at his feet. On another occasion, the suit got 15 seconds of fame when a client “with strong political beliefs” was attacked outside court and Eaton tackled the offender to the ground. Third time unlucky, Eaton was having a conversation with a colleague in the office when he collapsed mid sentence, suffering what Eaton called “a major attack”.
After such a string of harrowing events he was tempted to donate the suit to the city mission, but decided it would be unfair to burden someone else with its bad luck. Instead, the ensemble now sits in another wardrobe where Eaton isn’t tempted to put it on.
The Greatest Trauma
Being a lawyer brings a huge level of responsibility. “Many people will have one intervention with the criminal justice process and it affects them and their families and it is the crisis point for them. It is the greatest trauma, [the] most distressing event they’ll ever experience in their life.”
Eaton says this has made him good at seeing the positive in people despite obvious shortcomings or failings. His law career has redefined what a crisis in his personal life really means, too.
He makes sure to prioritise the things he enjoys as a way to relax. When he isn’t in ‘trial mode’, he does stand up paddle boarding, plays tennis, and goes to the gym a couple of times a week.
He says he still gets nervous going to court; the day he doesn’t, he’ll stop doing it, because if you’re not putting your heart and soul into it, you shouldn’t be doing it.
“If it’s not keeping you up at night when you’re in trial mode, then you’re not doing it properly.”
For Eaton, the best and hardest part of being a lawyer is knowing that complete strangers put faith and responsibility in you to help them in moments of great stress. “I always think that’s quite an honour and a privilege”
“That’s very very rewarding professionally to know that people who you don’t know want you to do that for them and I will never, ever take that for granted.”
Another aspect of Eaton’s career is acting for the New Zealand Police Association. He works with police who are in disciplinary difficulties, criminal allegations, or investigations.
“What I find intensely rewarding is to see old school, hard-nosed cops who come in here having thought defence lawyers are just a pain in the ass, and [that] they just rogue the system to achieve outcomes and they get in the way of the truth and when they have a complete reversal of view about what a defence lawyer does and when you secure an outcome for them which is successful they inevitably walk away saying to you, I will never police the same again and I will be so much better a police officer because of it.”
He finds that in this process police see things from the other side and begin to understand how isolated and vulnerable it is to have the “finger pointed at you”, particularly if they think it’s unfairly directed.