Armed forces as employees - asset or liability?
IMAGINE you're interviewing a young solicitor for a role at your firm. You're impressed by her intelligence, spark and obvious work ethic. Then she mentions she's in the territorials. Do you think: (a) "Huh - so you're going to need a lot of time off and you might not meet budget" or (b) "Fantastic - I'll get the benefit of your military training without having to pay for training courses"?
The initial reaction of many employers, both within the profession and elsewhere, is (a). Brigadier Tim Brewer, a partner in New Plymouth firm Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen, would disagree with this knee-jerk response. After 27 years in the Territorial Forces (TF), New Zealand's part-time army, he firmly believes that part-time military service can actually help advance your legal career.
"Many law firms place a high value on the skills taught in the part-time military's training programme, and on the wider community involvement that goes along with military service," he says.
In particular, TF trainees learn formal leadership skills, self-reliance to take responsibility, communication skills, formal problem-solving techniques, and planning skills.
Tim also believes that the legal profession is "surprisingly compatible" with military service.
"Both the legal profession and the military require decision makers, the ability to make sense of complex situations, a degree of toughness and a will to win. Because of this, there have always been lawyers associated with the part-time military and we still have law students coming through the scholarship scheme into our ranks today.
"Members of the Territorial Forces have to prioritise tasks, manage time and make best use of limited resources. These skills are readily transferable to the business environment and people with armed forces' experience are leaders throughout society."
Tim has certainly combined his legal and military careers very successfully. His rank of Brigadier is the second highest in the army (second only to Major General) and the highest rank available to part-time military officers. In fact, Tim is the most senior part-time military officer in the New Zealand Defence Force, which includes the part-time navy (reservists) as well as the TF.
Tim joined the territorials as a university student, his interest stemming from a family history of military service and, he candidly admits, a need for cash. "I needed money and the territorials gave good holiday employment."
When he began to practise law, he found his employers were always supportive of his military involvement. "They supported me because they valued my contribution to the community and they appreciated the benefits of my military training."
As a rule, Tim was required to complete 10-14 days of full-time training for the TF per year, which he took as annual leave. He made up the rest of his military service at weekends.
Whether as a partner or an employee, Tim agrees that the effect of military service on a person's financial contribution to the firm is an area that causes concern for many firms.
"Lawyers are sometimes told 'yes, you can do part-time military service but you have to meet budget'. As a partner, I've always had an eye to the bottom line and I've worked pretty hard to make sure my financial contribution never fell below an acceptable level."
Another situation that can be difficult is where a clash arises between a lawyer's caseload and military requirements. Tim recalls one occasion when he had to ask a colleague to take a murder trial for him on short notice but says this is rare.
"You just do the best you can to plan and when it comes down to it, your civilian life takes priority. Within the part-time units, there is an understanding that this is your priority."
For anyone interested in joining the TF, or employing a territorial, the basic requirements are as follows.
Initially, all recruits must complete seven weeks of basic training, followed by another seven weeks in the next year if entering as an officer candidate. Tim says most lawyers do their basic training in the long university holidays while they are still students, and most law students enter the armed forces as officer candidates.
After training, territorials get assigned to units according to geographical location. Each unit has its own training programme. All territorials are required to complete a minimum of 20 days' service a year, but there is some degree of flexibility as to when this is done. Tim says troops can pick and choose from their unit's training programme to some extent, although some things are easier to duck than others, depending on the person's role within the unit.
Part-time military soldiers and officers also serve on peace and security operations overseas alongside their full-time colleagues. Tim knows of a lawyer in the territorials who is currently based in Afghanistan. His firm gave him extended leave without pay for nine months so he could serve on this mission.
Although there is a Defence Legal Service, which has lawyers serving in it as their TF job, most lawyers in the TF serve as soldiers.
"The regimental phase of my TF career, for example, was as an infantry officer," Tim says.
"A professional spin-off for some litigators who serve in the TF is membership of the Courts-Martial Panel of Advocates. Members of this panel prosecute or defend most courts-martial for fees equivalent to Crown Solicitors' rates.
"Sometimes this means taking cases in quite exotic overseas locations. For example, in 2001 I went to Bosnia twice to investigate and then prosecute in a case that sat in England and Bosnia to hear the evidence of witnesses of five different nationalities."
The emphasis in the TF now is to support the full-time army on overseas operations - 480 TF served in East Timor for periods of up to six months, lawyers among them.
"I went to East Timor in 2000 to see how the TF soldiers were getting on and found them to be completely assimilated with their full-time colleagues. The TF is not a hobby, it is a part-time profession, and the defence forces of Australia, the UK, Canada and the US - as well as ourselves - depend increasingly on their part-time service personnel. It's just that not a lot of people know that," he says.
To encourage employers to employ part-time military personnel, the Defence Force has launched a new initiative aimed at fostering a cooperative relationship with employers. For more information on the Defence Employer Support Programme, contact Major Michael Brown, tel (04) 498 6852.