Paying it forward

Alumnus Jason Nichols shares what his Law degree taught him, highlights from his career and what he enjoys about supporting the next generation of the legal profession through the Alumni as Mentors programme.

What did you study at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington?  
LLB and BCA (Economics)

Why did you choose your degree?  
I had very little direction back then in terms of what sort of career I wanted to pursue. My uncle once said to me "if you don't know what to study, do a law degree". He didn't study law himself, so I'm not sure what prompted that advice, but it turned out to be good! I decided I couldn't go wrong with a degree from a law school like the University’s in Wellington. Although it wasn't a particularly well thought through plan, I'm still happy with the decision today. In hindsight I think there are plenty of other things I also would have found very interesting to study—perhaps I'll have to return to the University and do a Bachelor of Arts one day...

What were your plans on leaving the University?  
I thought I would practise as a lawyer for a while and then work overseas. Unfortunately, the global financial crisis hit and working as a lawyer overseas became far more difficult, so the plan didn't immediately work out. But I ended up doing a lot of travel instead and still made it to London for a few good years.

What have been your career highlights since graduating?  
Looking back, some highlights include the time I spent at Russell McVeagh, where I feel extremely lucky to have worked with, and learned from, some fantastic lawyers (and great people). The years I spent in London working for a start-up were also a hugely valuable experience. But the biggest highlight is, in fact, being back in New Zealand and working in the legal team at Fonterra. I feel extremely fortunate to work with exceptional people in an exciting environment and for a global organisation based here in New Zealand.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?  
In the context of a legal career, the best advice I had was from my manager at my first "real" job out of university. I was weighing up whether to study for admission to the bar or pursue a commercial career. The advice was that if I wanted a commercial job in the future, a career in law would set me up well. But if I decided down the track that I wanted to be a lawyer it would be more difficult to make the switch back the other way. I still look back and think that simple advice was really important for me.

Tell us a little about your current role at Fonterra.
My current role is General Counsel for Fonterra's AMENA business. AMENA covers the Africa, Middle East, Europe, North Asia and Americas regions. I lead a team of lawyers mostly based in New Zealand but also in the Netherlands, the United States and Chile. The team works with law firms around the world to support all of Fonterra's operations in these regions but is also regularly "on the tools" with legal work. This has its challenges with time zones and staying connected to colleagues globally (especially with COVID-19 affecting international travel), but we enjoy working on projects in a diverse range of markets. We form part of the wider Fonterra global legal team, which also has lawyers in Australia, China and Brazil.

What do you enjoy most about working in your profession?  
I find being an in-house lawyer is an enjoyable mix between being a subject matter expert in areas of law and also getting stuck into commercial projects. I also find that working in-house allows me to manage my time a bit more easily, which is a nice bonus since I have three young kids.

Biggest challenge for your industry?  
Disruption through technology is relevant for every industry and law is no exception. We are already seeing artificial intelligence becoming relevant in some areas and the legal profession will of course need to adapt to new ways of working and advising clients in the future. However, I believe there is a very significant ‘human’ element to being a trusted legal advisor so I'm not concerned about being replaced by Siri any time soon.

Why did you join the Alumni as Mentors programme?  
I had been thinking about finding a way to contribute to the community outside of work for a while, and really liked the idea of both supporting people joining the legal profession as well as getting involved in the alumni community.

How have you found the programme?  
I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting my mentees and feel it is a valuable experience for mentors as well as mentees. It is fascinating to connect with younger people and get their perspective on the legal profession and working in law. I have been so impressed by the professionalism and enthusiasm of my mentees (and I'm certain I wasn't so switched on when I was at university!). They have exciting careers ahead of them and hopefully the Alumni as Mentors programme helps with that. The experience has also prompted me to re-connect with my own alumni/professional networks to bounce ideas and answer questions for my mentees, which has been great!