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After practising law for 40 years, then establishing a specialist management consultancy, Pieter Oomens is now an author after publishing his debut novel 'And All Our Yesterdays'. He shares his insight into how skills obtained from a career in law can transcend different industries and open many doors.

Pieter, after stepping away from practising as a commercial solicitor full time, you decided to pursue a passion for fiction writing. How did you find the change of pace?  

I got to the point where I said to myself, ‘if you don’t start writing now, don’t ever tell yourself you could have been a writer’. I had run out of excuses not to write. Wouldn’t it be great to be a writer? To wake up in the morning and know that you are going to head off somewhere, sit down in a coffee shop, use your imagination and conjure up these characters and have them collide with one another. 

Being a writer is completely different, and I feel much freer in that regard. Writing fiction is totally a work of imagination, but what practising law for so long allowed me to do was hone my skills in writing precisely. I worked every day of my life with words, so when it came time to write And All Our Yesterdays, it meant I was able to understand the importance of balancing sentences, changing their length, and understanding the little nuances that make what would otherwise be dull quite interesting.  

Having done different things with your law degree, what is your advice for early career lawyers entering the profession who are unsure of the direction they want to take?  

It sounds clichéd, but you won’t know until you try it. Your impression of the law will depend on where you practise. I was fortunate enough to start my career at a time where partners said to me ‘learn your craft’. Those were the instructions I had, and off I went with a room full of files and clients to deal with from day one. The other thing I was very fortunate to experience when I started was having lots of variety. I had the opportunity to work in the fields of personal injury litigation, commercial litigation, crime, as well as doing transactional work. The variety made it interesting. 

It is not the same now, unless you are in the country. Most people who go into private practice will gravitate towards larger firms where, for good business reasons, the focus is on specialisation. There is a danger in allowing yourself to become specialist too soon, unless you are absolutely sure. If you can widen the scope of the work you do, it will make you a better lawyer. Having a law degree opens doors, and that is the one great advantage. 

Why did you decide to study law? 

Briefly stated, I got the marks to get in, and it seemed like a good idea at the time, although my plan had been to go into advertising after I got law degree. My peers began to go to interviews, and I felt left out because I wasn’t going to any. I got caught up in the swing of things, and I found myself with my practising certificate and a job. I was like a duck in water, I absolutely loved it.  

The intellectual challenge is the one thing I missed most and missed immediately when I stopped practising full time. That was the thing I enjoyed most keenly: being presented with a problem and working through a solution that would result in the best possible outcome for my client. Now I get the intellectual challenge through writing, which I think is much more fulfilling, because I am creating the world, the drama and interactions between people.  

If you can widen the scope of the work you do, it will make you a better lawyer. Having a law degree opens doors, and that is the one great advantage. 

Why is it important to have passions outside the law?  

I was a Board Director of the Sydney Youth Orchestra for 12 years. It was important for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was an opportunity to become involved as a volunteer in some activity, which is very important for anybody, especially in the legal profession. Secondly, I was on a Board with some first-class operators; people who were heavyweights in business, law, accounting, and the senior echelons of the state and federal public service. I had the opportunity to work with some very bright people while I was the Managing Partner of my firm. It was wonderful to get their ideas on how an organisation should be run and what problems to look for. 

If you are just a one dimensional being, and all you know is what you read in law books and how to apply it, you might be effective … but only up to a point. At some stage in your life, you won’t be able to do that anymore. If you don’t have another side to yourself, then you’re going to be at a disadvantage in terms of dealing with people.  

During your time as a member of the Law Society of NSW, you served on a committee and undertook the Specialist Accreditation program. Would you encourage others to do the same? 

You will not succeed as a lawyer unless you push yourself beyond comfortable boundaries. If you’re in the game and you want to be an excellent lawyer, the way you do that is to push yourself and do things you haven’t done before. You should seriously consider undertaking a Specialist Accreditation program. I think it is a wonderful institution that the Law Society has created. As to being involved in committees, life is short, and you have to give back. It is going to expand your horizons and you will meet people you might not have otherwise met, in an environment that you will find genuinely useful and interesting.