Alison Hamilton

Undertaking diverse law courses and complementary public policy studies added to the versatility Alison needed to work in international trade.

Alison Hamilton picture

I think I always knew I would study Law, but the choice of a second degree was much harder. I was surprised by the breadth of courses available in the Law degree. I had thought it would be very prescribed, but there was a lot of choice. Each area is different and requires different ways of writing and thinking. The wide range of subjects means that tricky issues are not completely unknown when they cross my desk at work as I have been exposed to diverse subject matter and approaches.

I selected two BA majors that I thought would be interesting and went from there. Studying Public Policy made sense in Wellington and why not learn how decisions behind the law get made? Criminology was something I did not even know about until I got to university. The subject offered a way to think completely differently and get out of my comfort zone.

While studying, I worked as a tutor for law courses and did volunteer work through the Wellington Community Justice Project. This work helped me to realise the practical impact of what I was studying and built confidence to apply it in the real world.

My Law degree led to my first role as a junior lawyer at a large commercial firm. While there, an international trade related file came in and I was keen to help. I then started to investigate whether there were ways to have a career in that field. That is what led me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

The skills gained from my BA, particularly Public Policy, were invaluable as I moved from commercial practice to the public sector. While it was still a learning curve, my study meant that the policy-making and government processes were not completely unknown. My Law degree and the practical skills associated with legal study are also directly relevant to my work now. Public speaking, mooting and negotiation, client interviewing, and text analysis and drafting are all tools I use daily. While I'm not giving legal advice, I'm developing arguments, questions and strategy for advancing or defending positions.

I am currently New Zealand's Deputy Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. It is an offshore posting with MFAT. Along with the team, I represent the New Zealand Government at the WTO. One example of this is participating in negotiations in pursuit of new market access commitments and trade rules among members. The WTO's main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably, and freely as possible between its members.

Of course, COVID19 has had a significant impact on my work both substantively, in terms of the issues being discussed, and in a practical sense. We are living in various states of lockdown and working from home. I've had far too many virtual meetings and negotiations to count. Despite the virtual environment, working with a great team here at the New Zealand Permanent Mission and colleagues from the 163 other WTO members is such a privilege.

This is my third role at MFAT. My first role was as Investment Issues Adviser, negotiating chapters of various NZ Free Trade Agreement. I then moved to a role as Lead Adviser that focused on the EU-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement. The variety of roles, even within the area of international trade, means that I am always learning and being exposed to new ideas and challenges. And to make things a little more interesting, I am currently on parental leave with my first baby here in Switzerland. I am looking forward to tackling parenting while also pursuing my career.

My advice for students choosing courses is to study what is interesting to you. And if it doesn't feel right, do not be afraid to consider a switch in either subject, major, degree or job. We run the risk of telling ourselves that we can only do "one job". But skills are transferrable and there is so much more out there than we know at school, at university, in our first jobs or beyond. I did not take any International Relations courses at university or have any idea that international trade policy and negotiations could be a career, and it is now my day-to-day job.