Nicole Ashby didn’t always think she could be a lawyer. Having left high school in Year 11, she was a parent at age 18, and by age 23, found herself with two children.
“I didn’t think there would be many opportunities for me,” said Nicole. “I lacked self-confidence for a long time, but I eventually realised I had to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
Distance learning opened doors to law
This led her to distance learning, completing the first year of a business degree.
“Studying from home seemed way less scary,” explained Nicole. “The plan was initially to major in accounting - which is funny because I’m a classic lawyer - numbers are in not my friend.”
As part of her degree, she undertook commercial law and took a liking to it.
“I started looking into law school,” Nicole said, though she still did not believe she would be accepted or be smart enough to pass law subjects.
“I don’t know how I overcame that, but I did. I think I just adopted the attitude that I should just ‘give it a go – what’s the worst that could happen?’ After that, it was perhaps just a matter of being on the path and continuing to walk it.”
Brutal honesty led her to a clerkship
Surrounded by ‘superstar kids’, Nicole’s doubts continued into clerkship season. This was despite making Massey University’s Dean’s List (College of Business) in both 2011 and 2012.
“Everyone around me was applying for internships and summer clerkships at all of the big law firms,” said Nicole. “I didn’t plan on applying as all these superstar kids around me had A+’s, NCEA levels 1, 2 and 3, scholarships. Pretty much everything I didn’t have.”
She pushed through the self-doubt to submit clerkship applications.
“In all but one application, I tried to describe myself as someone who I thought they wanted. I didn’t mention my kids. I didn’t mention my zero school qualifications. I would try and get around the questions asking me about my job history – I had had jobs working at cafés, but again I didn’t think this is what they wanted.”
Rejection after rejection followed.
“I thought ‘bugger it’, and in my next application I was brutally honest,” said Nicole.“I just came right out and told my story: young mum - single at that point - no school qualifications, no useful job history.The only experience I had with lawyers was to serve them coffee.”
“I told them who I was: focussed, resilient, and experienced in my own unique way. Simpson Grierson offered me a summer clerk position, and I am still here today.”
Empowering others through difference
“As a young mum, and particularly as a young Māori mum, I genuinely did not think that I would ever become a lawyer,” said Nicole.
When she left high school, one of her first jobs was at a cafe opposite the North Shore District Court.
“I used to look at all the fancy lawyers rushing around with their serious faces and important phone calls and think that that was something I could never ever achieve,” said Nicole.“I was so wrong.
For those considering a career in law, but feel they may not come from the ‘right’ background, Nicole has a clear message.
“Don’t be ashamed about your background or your circumstances,” Nicole urged. “Those things are what set you apart from everyone else. And don’t think that those things make you any less valuable. Be honest about who you are and what you have been through. Not everyone will appreciate it, but you might be surprised as to how many will.”
Valuing difference key to achieving equity
Nicole has also published on the issue of female under representation in the New Zealand legal profession.
“This is such a complex issue,” explained Nicole.“We see female under-representation,and within that, there is also the issue of female Maori and Pasifika inequity. It’s not a problem limited to the legal profession.
“I think everyone has a part to play in fixing these issues and it will involve facing a lot of uncomfortable truths. I think we need to commit to change and commit to valuing difference - differences between people, differences in their experiences and differences in the way they see things.
“By ‘commit’, I mean we need to do more than just encourage job applications ‘from a diverse range of people’, and we need to do more than promote flexible working, or other things that are indirectly, and incorrectly, targeted at helping women.
“Nothing will change if we don’t do something different, right?”