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On the job in international law
Achinthi Vithanage studied a Bachelor of Laws / Bachelor of International Studies (Major in Global Studies) at University of New South Wales is now senior solicitor at NRG Legal.
What is your current role?
I am a senior solicitor at NRG Legal. I am also the Immediate Past Chair of the NSW Young Lawyers International Law Committee.
Where did you study?
I studied a Combined Degree in Bachelor of Laws / Bachelor of International Studies (Major in Global Studies) at the University of New South Wales.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have acquired an international upbringing from a very young age. I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and moved to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, at the age of two. Attending an international primary school, I found myself learning three languages - Arabic, Sinhalese and English - from the ages of four to seven. I subsequently returned to Sri Lanka and attended the island’s foremost girls school for a mere term before migrating to Australia in 1996.
In Sydney, I moved around a lot until finally settling into Baulkham Hills Selective High School for the full duration of my higher school studies. At school I studied Japanese for six years. A surprising turn of events found me learning international environmental law in legal studies, which is when I first discovered my interest in international law. Soon I found myself aiming for a Law/International Studies degree at UNSW.
After commencing my studies at UNSW, I commenced part-time employment as an Investigations Officer for the NSW Energy & Water Ombudsman, which monitors the state’s water and energy industries. At the same time, I worked part-time at NRG Legal as a paralegal. As I was planning an exchange year in Japan as part of my International Studies degree, I required serious funding!
From 2009 to 2010, I was selected to attend the renowned Waseda University in Tokyo, and fortunately secured a Japanese government scholarship as well, leaving me with additional funds to travel all over Japan as well as to the U.S. and Mexico with my newfound exchange friends. This exchange year was instrumental in fostering my interest in international law because I was introduced to a wide network of law students from all over the world. I’m still in touch with them today. I have even attended some of their weddings!
After I returned to Sydney, I was offered an opportunity to return to NRG Legal to work part-time throughout my studies. The practice has a large Japanese client base, so my Japanese language and cultural skills proved invaluable. During the following two years, I managed to do a one1 month university language program in Seville, Spain, and a Chinese Law Summer Program in Shanghai.
On completion of my coursework in 2011, I joined the NSWYL International Law Committee. Then, in May 2012, I took up full-time employment as a graduate at NRG, completed my practical legal training and was admitted as a solicitor. I also developed one of my university papers on international environmental and human rights law into an article that was published in the Yearbook of Polar Law IV.
What does your job involve?
NRG Legal is a boutique law firm that focuses primarily on providing corporate and commercial legal advice. I am a fifth year PQE senior solicitor, mainly providing advice to domestic and international clients on commercial legal aspects for businesses, including business acquisition, retail and commercial leasing, liquor licensing, franchising and intellectual property.
I manage matters for a variety of corporate and business clients. Much of my work includes face-to-face meetings and contractual negotiations between business parties. Negotiations may occur in person, over the phone, or via email (especially if the clients are based overseas). Most of my work is transactional and I prefer this. I enjoy the negotiation process, preparing agreements based on those negotiations and delivering a successful commercial outcome.
However, sometimes my commercial litigation work involves Japanese clients. Such cases have required me to attend client conferences conducted in Japanese, review documents in Japanese, conduct simple translations, provide legal advice (usually in English, though occasionally in Japanese), attend Barrister’s conferences, and liaise in Japanese with the clients, prepare court documentation and evidence and attend court with the clients. This can be particularly challenging as court legalese is not easily translatable!
One aspect of my job that I enjoy is the initial moment when Japanese clients realise that the Sri Lankan/Australian lawyer standing before them speaks Japanese. The look of sheer surprise on clients’ faces still amuses me, even after so many years!
Could someone with a different background do your job?
Yes! If you can show cultural awareness and a willingness to learn, absolutely! However, for my position, I would recommend that you invest some time in learning the Japanese language and familiarising yourself with Japanese business etiquette. There’s plenty of short Japanese language business courses that you can do in Sydney in tandem with your work.
Cultural awareness, patience and the ability to manage client expectations with flair are also useful characteristics to have.
What's the coolest thing about your job?
The opportunity to work with Japanese clientele is one of the most interesting aspects of my job. Most of our Japanese clientele are from prominent companies seeking to set up businesses in Australia. Negotiations are often complex and confusing owing to some Japanese business practices. Finding the right balance while conducting negotiations between Japanese parties in an Australian business and legal context is fascinating. What’s more, it often involves attending functions at Japanese restaurants and I get insider information on the best Japanese food joints in town!
The best moments are when clients provide positive feedback at the end of a matter, be it a heartfelt email or a thank you card. Those small gestures of appreciation make the most impact.
What are the limitations of your job?
Depending on your view, some people may consider working in a boutique firm a limiting factor. I do not see it this way. It was the very nature of life within a boutique firm that allowed my career to grow exponentially while my university colleagues in larger firms were still doing menial tasks. I was granted opportunities to meet and deal with international clients and run matters to a significant extent on my own from very early on in my career.
Did I end up bearing too much responsibility as a result? No. The responsibility was earned as I proved myself. Furthermore, my work environment is very balanced. I do not work on weekends and I very rarely take work home with me. This is partly owing to the culture of the firm and partly owing to my conscious effort to keep work and home separate. While not always easy to do, I consider it necessary for one’s mental health.
What are three pieces of advice that you’d give to your university age self?
- Take up more opportunities for learning languages or doing short courses overseas in the first three years of uni, because you mightn't ever get such extensive holidays again.
- Get involved with the New South Wales Young Lawyers’ committees before finishing uni.
- Make more use of your student discounts - adult life is considerably more expensive!
Learn more about working in this field, jump to International law overview.