Barrister and mediator Paul Sills discusses how he changed careers – from Air Force navigator to lawyer – and why having a diverse life experience is an advantage in the law. Ivory towers, pale, male and stale are probably more common associations with lawyers; although these are generalisations, he writes. Paul will deliver a presentation at the 6th Annual 10 CPD Hours in One Day Conference in March. 

Phrases such as “well-rounded” and “in touch with the average person on the street” are not typically used when people talk about lawyers. Ivory towers, pale, male and stale are probably more common associations. Of course these are generalisations – there are many lawyers with incredibly diverse interests and experiences which bring depth to their practice. I think those practitioners have an advantage.

Having taken a non-traditional path into law, opting out and then back in again, has given me first-hand experience with the benefits that a variety of careers or interests can bring to the practice of law.

When I left rural New Zealand to join the Air Force, the thought of law had never entered my mind. I spent my youth as a navigator flying predominantly search and rescue and resource protection operations. I started a commerce degree extramurally during this time and found an unexpected interest in the law. That turned into an LLB at Auckland University, graduating at age 30 in the early 90s.

Many people told me I would have difficulty getting a job due to my “mature student” status. One foolish law firm did not conform and hired me. I have been engaged in the law since 1995, except for a two year hiatus as the CEO of Sensation Yachts Limited (which is a long story in and of itself).

I am grateful for this admittedly erratic sounding career path. Why? Because it has given me exposure to different aspects of life and humanity that help inform my practice on a daily basis. The military encouraged discipline, focus and self-reliance. All traits that I think are necessary in the law – which we know can be a hard, stressful and at times lonely existence.

Running a business here and overseas has become my greatest asset in assisting clients in disputes and assisting parties as a mediator. It forced a complete rethink on how to measure value in what you achieve in a day (no timesheets!), the benefits of risk versus reward and things like the management of debt. The list goes on. Learning to look at things from a commercial perspective rather than a legal one (which was difficult to learn at the time) provides greater understanding and empathy when working with clients who are in dispute. And not just commercial clients – people from all walks of life.

Experiencing litigation as a client opened my eyes to the stresses and demands that litigation places on people – not just from a cost perspective but more particularly the stress and emotional toll that it takes – even on those involved in so called arm’s length commercial disputes. I don’t believe in the phrase “it’s nothing personal” anymore – when you are in the middle of a dispute it is all personal.

I encourage everyone in practice to seek out opportunities outside of the law to broaden your experiences of life and help inform your practice. The more we do this, the less “stale” we will be – regardless of age or gender.

Published on Legalwise 14 February 2019.