"The only place where big change can truly be made"

With a science degree and a journalism career under her belt, Victoria University of Wellington alumna Nicci Coffey’s journey to law had a few twists and turns.

A profile image of Nicci Coffey.

At a young age, a summer working on a horse ranch in the United States sparked Nicci’s interest in veterinary studies. Once she began studying towards a Bachelor of Veterinary Science, she quickly found her interest in people outweighed her interest in animals, so she refocused her scientific studies on the more human subjects of ecology and physiology. At the same time, becoming a student president in an election year sparked her interest in journalism. Her work as a journalist then exposed her to law, and led her to study for a Bachelor of Laws at Wellington’s Law School.

“As a journalist I used to interview lawyers, and I could never get straight answers to my questions. I decided to beat them at their own game, by getting some legal knowledge to ask better questions,” Nicci says. “An inspiring first year spurred me on. Now I’m the one who can’t give straight answers—because I see the hidden complexity behind even seemingly straightforward questions—so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Nicci has recently taken the opportunity to go on secondment from her role as a Solicitor for the Ministry for Primary Industries, to Oranga Tamariki—Ministry for Children. She says this type of change is one of the best things working in government can offer, as legal skills are portable across the public sector.

“Even though I didn’t have a family law background, I took with me a wide range of general knowledge from working as a journalist, which (as well as helping with the daily quiz) can provide valuable context, particularly in a hurry; and my science background influences me to sift through things logically and carefully looking for relevance. Legal problems often don’t require legal solutions. Sometimes common sense is all that is needed, and reassurance. Putting the solution in a legal context then just operates as a comfort blanket, so people feel they have a mandate to do what they probably wanted to do in the first place.”

Experience working in public law has shown Nicci how public sector lawyers can impact New Zealand. “At Law School I very much saw legal success through the lens of getting into a big commercial law firm, and saw government as the poor cousin. That’s simply not true. If you are inspired by an ethic of public service and a drive to do things better, and seek challenge and variety, then I guarantee that government has a place for you. You can work with front-line staff to problem-solve, prosecute, litigate, draft legislation, review contracts, write opinions, and work nationally or internationally.

“I know there are stereotypes about working for government, and the public service, including that the legal service can be accused of being complacent. I’ve seen the opposite. Your lawyers, paid for by you, the taxpayer, have my utmost respect. I think they are some of the best and New Zealand is well-served by them. Often the work we do is unpleasant and dealing with serious harm. We work late into the night, and overnight, often putting work before family and personal commitments, because we are determined to do the best job we can because taxpayers deserve no less and that value drives our work ethic.

“The public service sector does not pay as well as private firms, but it’s also the only place where big change can truly be made. You can spend time developing skill sets that are not directly relevant to your day-to-day job without having to justify billing it back to a client. This can make you a better lawyer, whether it‘s developing skills in law-related areas (policy, economics) or life skills such as cultural competency. The networking and professional collegiality of lawyers in government is, in my view, second to none.”

There are many people in the legal community that inspired and supported Nicci. “Professor Angelo QC has been an amazing mentor, who has the invaluable trick of never telling you what to do or what the answer is but helps to guide you. Justice Matthew Palmer was a fabulous first-year law experience, making me think all the time ‘But, why?’ Associate Professor Grant Morris gave brilliant first-year lectures, and I don’t think I would have continued after first year without his engaging lectures encouraging me. My best electives were insurance law, taught by Paul Michalik. which was both practical and had really interesting principles; and then at the theoretical end of the spectrum, Associate Professor Joel Colón-Ríos’s constitutional law, which challenged my thinking.

“Interestingly, however, I haven’t found it easy to get support from inspiring women in the law community. I find it’s been hard to access them, which I think reflects that leadership roles for women in in law are still evolving. But my strongest support in the legal community is not from a lawyer, but Pauline Castle, the incomparable administrator at the Law School Office. When things were tough, her support of me as a struggling parent and student was invaluable.”