최종 수정일: 2020년 3월 27일
We live in uncertain times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption throughout the world, and New Zealand has not been lucky enough to escape it. Given the recent developments including the escalation of the COVID-19 alert system to Level 4 with effect on 25 March 2020, we will move into self-isolation as a nation, resulting in the entire economy largely shutting down for the next four weeks.
The Government’s announcements have already caused a lot of angst and anxiety amongst our population, none more so than within the Korean community (as we have been more alive to the risk of a COVID-19 pandemic than others due to Korea’s experience in combatting the spread of the virus). Panic has taken hold of this country in a way never seen before. When I was approached to contribute a column for Weekly Korea a few weeks ago, I agreed to draft a piece with messages of encouragement for young Koreans - particularly those that are concerned about their employability. Given the recent events, however, I would like to recalibrate this article into one that emphasises the need for resilience.
I was once in the position of facing similar uncertainty, having concluded three and a half years of study towards a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours at the University of Canterbury. I had no bearing on how my academic performance stacked up against those of my peers, or how marketable I would be as a prospective employee. I had played representative-level sports while at high school and was heavily involved with a number of student societies, but was by no means a superstar when it came to grades -- in fact, I am a less than proud owner of some embarrassing grades. All I knew, after growing up in Christchurch, which was quite an insular and somewhat backward city at the time, was that I could not wait to experience the bright(er) lights and opportunities that Auckland represented. With that in mind, I applied for as many internship opportunities as there were on offer, just as my friends did. In law, internships are highly coveted because they practically guarantee you a graduate position. I was fortunate enough to gain a number of interviews. When I arrived in Auckland in 2006 for various interviews and functions, and ultimately employment with Russell McVeagh, my previously held beliefs about Auckland being the “promised land” were vindicated. Bright lights, high rise buildings, vibrant nightlife -- you name it, they were here in abundance. I was wearing a suit every day and working on interesting projects while rubbing shoulders with some of the best legal minds in the country, and I took great pride in being one of very few students of Korean descent to secure an internship and graduate employment at a reputable national firm. Those were the times when Korean lawyers had not painted themselves in glory, especially following the fallout from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Back then, being Korean did not give you any advantage whatsoever from an employment perspective. What I did not see coming was the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, which coincided with my arrival at Russell McVeagh as a graduate. Things took a turn for the worse quickly and we had to be disciplined in everything we did - from management of idle times, to learning to be productive and survive as a lawyer within a firm whose profitability was deeply challenged, like everyone else’s. My first piece of work was literally (and deservedly) torn up before my eyes and I ended up seriously questioning my prospects of having a successful career in law. The good news was that the Global Financial Crisis eventually passed and things soon went back to normal, culminating in a rewarding three year tenure in the corporate and M&A team of a great firm. As someone who was never the brightest in class, practicing law (or working in professional services) did not come naturally to me but I compensated for my lack of natural gift through sheer effort and hard work. It was at this time that I started appreciating my migrant upbringing, as that prepared me well for overcoming adversity in changing environments. I resigned from my first job in February 2011 in search of an overseas adventure. I managed to secure a great role with a global law firm in Hong Kong, days before the devastating Christchurch earthquakes. To help my parents through what was an immensely difficult time, I made the hard decision to forego the opportunity in Hong Kong and instead took a role with a boutique international firm, Webb Henderson, which was establishing a corporate and M&A capability. I was the first employee in that firm’s corporate and M&A team, which has since gone from strength to strength to become one of the most respected deal teams in New Zealand today. After my three and a half year stint at Webb Henderson, I ended up being headhunted by Harmos Horton Lusk, a boutique corporate law firm with unrivalled reputation in the market for solving the hardest problems and working on transactions that many others regard as impossible. In my field, that is a firm that you do not say “no” to if they offer you a job. After five great years at that firm, during which I pushed myself harder both mentally and physically than I thought was humanly possible, an opportunity arose for me to join the partnership at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm with over 10,000 lawyers in 75 offices around the globe. I took that opportunity with both hands, not because I had any particular degree of dissatisfaction with Harmos Horton Lusk (where I was offered a track to partnership), but because I wanted to reset who I am as a lawyer and person. Now I am leading a team of around 20 staff in Auckland and Wellington, and have the monumental task of providing my people with a rewarding career -- just like the one I have been fortunate enough to experience, and am still experiencing. My resilience was severely tested at a number of junctures during my career - and at each juncture, the challenge that presented itself tended to be tougher than the last. My resilience continues to be tested in my current role -- whether it is caused by the need to juggle different responsibilities as a business owner and lawyer, self-doubt creeping in, unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic which has put a halt on most business transactions, or else. With time, however, what I have realised is that regardless of whether it is the Asian Financial Crisis, the Global Financial Crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes or the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter how insurmountable the task appears to be, life goes on and adversities pass, and you will find yourself wondering what the fuss was about. The same resilient approach should be taken when you are putting yourself forward for potential employment. The task ahead does seem overwhelming, you end up questioning your candidacy, and you spend many hours procrastinating and playing out several worst-case scenarios in your head. You had these grand ideas about a rich and fulfilling life after graduation, but all of it unravels and evaporates when you miss out on the opportunities that you thought you were tailormade for. Many persevere, but some give up. What I can tell you from my experience is that the first time is always the toughest. It does not matter where you commence your career (although it does help to start your career at a place that will allow you to reach your potentials), and it matters even less where your perceived equals end up. The world is large enough to accommodate all of us and there is a rewarding career to be had by each and every one of you. So take yourself out of your comfort zone, apply for jobs that appeal to you, and keep at it even if you do receive a number of rejections. The worst thing that can happen to you after an application for a role is to receive a nicely written “thanks, but no thanks” message. But if that is the worst thing to happen in your day, week, month or year, you have had a pretty good life. Being a Korean in New Zealand would have taught you the meaning of resilience, even if that has not yet dawned on you. We have had to adapt to a new language and way of life in this country, and as a racial minority, we battle stereotypes (and casual racism) each day. We are having to outperform the majority just to gain the same level of recognition and acceptance, but that is the hand we have been dealt and we need to rise above it.
Although you may not have realised this already, you have already demonstrated your resilience
(which is absolutely essential if you are to succeed) by coming as far as you have -- so use that as a key message to your prospective employer to enhance your profile, because now is a time when
diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of employers’ minds. And help me and the others who are changing the way that Koreans are perceived in New Zealand. I am encouraged and proud to observe many younger lawyers of Korean descent coming through the ranks at reputable firms, as they are paving a path for future generations of Koreans to have an easier entry into employment. In accountancy, tax and finance, the profession is full of young Koreans making their mark. I hope to see many more of you in the legal profession in the years to come - and if you are nearing your final year of studies at law school, I urge you to submit an application for the summer internship programmes currently being offered by all major law firms. If COVID-19 has had any positive impact, it is that your deadline for application has been extended to 6 April 2020.
Wook Jin Lee
Recognition NZ Lawyer 2020: Rising Star Asia Leading Lawyers 2019: Rising Star
Asia Leading Lawyers 2018: Rising Star Memberships Member, New Zealand Law Society/ Member, NZ Private Capital / Member, Korea New Zealand Business Council
Prior and Present Employment Dentons Kensington Swan (formerly Kensington Swan), 2019 to date Harmos Horton Lusk, 2014 – 2019 Webb Henderson, 2011 – 2014 Russell McVeagh, 2008 – 2011