VSO legal placement in South Pacific for public (ex-City) lawyer

John Finlay trained at Mayer Brown in the City, before converting to Public Law on qualification. At 5 yrs pqe he took a year-long VSO sabbatical to Vanuatu, where he worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs.  He is now back in London and we spoke to him about his career...


mtl:  Hi John, please can you start by telling us about your City background?


John:  After doing an English degree and the law conversion at The College of Law, Guildford, I trained at what was Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw (now Mayer Brown).  I knew I wanted to work in public law even before my conversion; I spent a year working in Zimbabwe before going to university and my interest in political decisions impacting on vulnerable people started from there.   I wanted to have some City experience behind me and the fact that my law school fees were paid by Mayer Brown wasn’t lost on me.  I was lucky to be exposed to City life whilst receiving first-class public law training.


During my time at Mayer Brown, I worked on projects for the British Institute of Human Rights and Liberty, fuelling my growing interest in civil liberties.  My desire to represent claimants rather than defendants, led me to join Fisher Meredith upon qualifying.   Seven years on I am privileged to work with some of the best civil liberties lawyers in the country and am currently Deputy Head of Fisher Meredith’s Public Law Department.  I am now in a position to support Fisher Meredith Trainees; all of whom show great personal commitment to the work they do.   


mtl:  What do you do now and how did your sabbatical come about?


John:  I mainly do education and community care work and act for individuals trying to get suitable health care, such as elderly people in care homes.  I also deal with some stand alone human rights issues, and act for charities who want to intervene in cases.




Career timeline



English, Birmingham University



Law Conversion and LPC, Guildford



Training contract, Mayer Brown (then Rowe & Maw)



Assistant, Fisher Meredith



Sabbatical: VSO legal placement with government of Vanuatu



Deputy Head of public law department, Fisher Meredith


I really enjoy the work; it’s complex, consuming and genuinely rewarding.   I meet lots of different clients and help people who are particularly vulnerable.  Today, I believe the market for civil liberty lawyers is a fairly competitive one, as more and more City lawyers look for work, which they consider to be “meaningful”. 


In January 2007, when I was about 5yrs PQE, I began speaking to VSO about an overseas legal placement.  It was a good point in my career to take a break from London and I was keen to do more international work.  It took about four or five months to work out the details of what I would do and in May 2007 I left with my wife (who also has a human rights background and had arranged a placement as well) for Vanuatu.   At the time, I resigned from Fisher Meredith but kept up my contact with the Firm and was offered the Deputy Head job on my return to the UK.


mtl:  Tell us about your time away and how a reader might go about setting up something similar.


John:  It was a fantastic year and definitely a career highlight – I didn’t think I would be in a position,  to directly advise and influence the decisions of senior government officials to ratify a major Human Rights Treaty.  I worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs of Vanuatu where   my role was to advise the government on international human rights treaties and conventions, which generally have a low take-up in  South Pacific countries


I advised on various treaties and conventions and arranged for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be signed and ratified as well as the two optional protocols on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  I worked with senior members of government on the process of ratification and the implications, conducted training on human rights within government departments and set up a department to deal with international human rights law. 


Aside from the work, life was different from that in London and involved trying to learn one of the 100 plus native languages, beaches and island hopping around the 83 very small islands that make up Vanuatu.  Vanuatu is about 125 on the Human Development Index and in many areas of the country it is very isolated with basic facilities. Largely life is very simple and the attitude extremely relaxed; lovely in some ways but sometimes difficult when things need to get done.  I was offered the opportunity of staying another year and whilst hugely tempted felt that I had already completed  the work I set out to do and wanted to return to London to continue my career.  I will always value my Vanuatu experience from both a personal and professional perspective. 


It is generally quite difficult to arrange a legal placement abroad and international law jobs are hard to get unless you are working with an NGO or the UN.  I am now working with VSO  to help create more opportunities for English lawyers to use their private practice skills to help vulnerable people of the developing world.


As well as focusing on international opportunities, VSO is further developing some of the current advocacy placements  to make them more focused on the skills that lawyers have to offer.  Lawyers should be made more aware that VSO offers this kind of work and that their expertise is needed around the globe.  Anyone looking for more information on the work that VSO are doing should look at the website (or contact me: john.finlay@fishermeredith.co.uk) if they are interested in hearing more. 


mtl: Thank you for your time John. 


Click here to see the VSO website.


If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.





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