Alumna Jacque Lethbridge hits new career heights
"Never stop striving for what is right, what is good and what is just,” says alumna Jacque Lethbridge to students of today. She has just been named Vice-President of the Law Society for Auckland and has fond memories of her time at Law School at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Horowhenua and Rangitikei areas but consider Feilding my home town.
Why did you choose Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington?
My father Christopher Lethbridge was a historian and had a keen interest in Māori history. He published a book on the relationship between Te Rauparaha and Octavius Hadfield.
From as early as I can remember, my father taught me about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and by the time I had finished school I had a keen interest in the developing areas of Treaty and Māori land law. It was for this reason that I transferred from the University of Otago to Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington to take advantage of the superior public law related papers and those relating to Treaty and Māori legal issues.
What did you study?
A Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts—History and Political Science double major. I subsequently obtained a Master of Laws from The University of Auckland after I was admitted to the bar.
How would you describe your student experience?
I loved being a student at the University and particularly loved being based at the Law School at Old Government Buildings.
Being so close to Parliament, where our laws are made and all of the superior courts are located, created such a rich environment for me as a young law student. I felt like I was part of the action and seeing law in motion. I was able to find work at the Waitangi Tribunal before finishing my law degree. I was there for three years and the experience has had a lasting impact on the kind of lawyer I am now—20 years later.
The cultural richness of Wellington as a city meant I was able to have an incredibly diverse bunch of friends across all fields of endeavour. I still think Wellington has the best coffee and music scene in New Zealand! Many of those friends have gone off to be leaders in their fields including in acting, singing, film direction and production, law, government, commerce and accounting.
What’s your strongest / best memory of studying at the University?
A lot of good memories! Sitting in the law library and studying in the rooms across from the Beehive—when I looked up from my books I would look out the window and the law seemed so present and real. The mooting competitions, the student protests, Tuesday night drinks at the Backbencher watching Dai Henwood’s first comedy gigs and Friday night gigs at the original Matterhorn listening to my mates in The Black Seeds, Fat Freddie’s Drop, and The Phoenix Foundation!
What was the most useful thing you learnt at university?
That there is no limit to learning, especially in the law. The frontiers of legal thought are ever-expanding and to be successful at a high level you have to be agile and always expanding your knowledge. It was a good lesson to learn early.
What sorts of opportunities did studying open up for you?
There is no question that my two undergraduate degrees set me up in the best way possible to have a long and diverse career in the law. I have had the privilege of working for and with some of the greatest legal minds that have been seen for a generation, including the first Māori Supreme Court judge—Justice Joe Williams at the Waitangi Tribunal.
I was part of the first group of lawyers to set up the Public Defence Service during its pilot phase. I have been able to teach both young lawyers and experienced lawyers in litigation practice, lecturing for the College of Law and as a member of The New Zealand Law Society’s (NZLS) Litigation Skills Faculty.
I have helped shape the legal profession through a number of senior roles representing lawyers in the NZLS. I have also developed board experience, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, having chaired the Auckland Community Law Centre Board for the last eight years.
I have been a leader in promoting and changing the place of women in the law, including establishing and co-chairing a Women in Restructuring and Insolvency interest group.
What have you been doing since graduating?
I started in an in-house role at the Waitangi Tribunal where I remained for three years. After getting admitted to the bar, and having my son at 24, I moved to Auckland and into my first litigation role as a prosecutor for the Ministry of Social Development. I moved to the Public Defence Service Pilot a year later and worked in both the Auckland and Manukau offices as a criminal defence lawyer doing a wide range of criminal cases, from low-level to jury trials in the High Court and criminal appeals.
In 2008 I moved into civil litigation at Grove Darlow & Partners, where I became a partner in 2012. I moved to Lowndes Law in 2016 as a partner and then finally to Martelli McKegg in 2019.
I have done a lot outside of legal practice, including on Boards for the NZLS, Auckland District Law Society, Auckland Community Law Centre, Restructuring and Insolvency Turnaround Association of New Zealand and the Inspiring Stories Trust. I have teaching roles at the College of Law and NZLS Litigation Skills Programme. I am currently a Vice-President of the NZLS for Auckland representing nearly half of the law profession.
Have you kept any connections with the University?
I have kept connections with the University through colleagues and friends who are also alumni. I would love to assist the University further, particularly the Faculty of Law and through mentoring female students to achieve their goals.
What’s been a highlight of your career so far?
I was asked by the Chief Justice to speak about the place of community law in New Zealand at the Commemorative Sitting of the Auckland High Court for the 150th year of the NZLS. It was such a honour to stand before the Chief Justice and many other esteemed judges of the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and address the development of the community law movement over the last 40 years.
What is your current job, and what do you love about it?
I am a litigation partner at Martelli McKegg in Auckland. I am a commercial litigator with a sub-specialisation in restructuring and insolvency. I have been recognised as a leading lawyer for insolvency work in various legal guides. I have a very diverse practice and am lucky enough to work with, and against, the most senior commercial litigators on some really ground-breaking cases, mainly in the High Court and appellate courts.
I love the complexity of civil law. No client’s needs are ever the same, although there is always commonality, and no case is ever the same. I love the people I work with, including the colleagues opposing my clients’ cases. One day they may be against you and the next working on the same side. Relationships in legal practice, much as in life, is one of the most important things to value.
What advice do you have for current students?
Believe in yourself and the power of your grey matter to change your life, the lives of others and the world. Dream big, take risks, work hard and remember that for every failure there are many successes, so never give up. Be passionate about your convictions and compassionate to those you encounter in all parts of your life. Look after your family and nurture the relationships with your friends—you will need them more and more as life goes on. Have fun and laugh as often as you can. Never stop striving for what is right, what is good, and what is just.