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Focus on... Lawyering in suburban Christchurch

29 March 2018 - By Craig Stephen

Cathedral Square, Christchurch before the 2011 earthquake
Cathedral Square, 2009 pre-earthquake
Geoff Wilson bnd

Christchurch’s legal profession is heavily based in the suburbs. Given the city’s recent history this makes perfect sense.

The city has 1240 lawyers and, before 2011, most of them were based in the CBD, particularly along and around Durham Street.

With more than a thousand buildings within the four avenues demolished following the quakes, people and businesses were forced to look at suburban Christchurch locations such as Addington and Riccarton.

“Obviously firms had to find alternative accommodation after the quakes, and that meant out of the CBD,” says New Zealand Law Society Canterbury Westland Branch Manager Malcolm Ellis.

“Some of them have stayed, some of them have come back. The suburbs offer a good setup, such as parking, but when a firm does come back, they find car parks are a premium and a bit of a headache.”

Suburban life

One firm that has stayed put in its new location is Cameron and Co, which until 2011 had its main office in Landsborough House on Durham Street. The seven-storey building, which housed two other law firms, was demolished in late 2012.

“It was a no-go zone, so we originally relocated to warehouse premises in Leslie Hills Drive [in Riccarton], which is where we later established a more permanent office,” says Practice Manager Julie Beijen.

Julie Beijen
Julie Beijen, Practice Manager
at Cameron and Co

The firm already had a branch office in Barrington, but the enforced move led to a reconsideration of its objectives.

“That really kicked off the move to a more established presence in the suburbs. We then set up small offices in Ilam and Upper Riccarton.”

Ms Beijen says that due to the nature of the firm’s work it did not see a need to return to the city centre.

“We are very much private-client based so there’s a strong, residential conveyancing component to the business and a very strong family law litigation side as well. There’s no need for us to be in town anymore, we don’t do any civil or criminal litigation now, and we have found that with our private client work, our mainly mum and dad clients love the fact we are not in the CBD now. The offices are easy to get to and there’s ample parking.

“There are lots of positives about the move so it was an easy decision not to return to town, and to establish ourselves in bigger offices in the ‘burbs, and that has also made us more visible. We did once line up next to our competitors, but standing alone in the suburbs we stand out.”

Ms Beijen says the changing residential nature of the city is also working in their favour.

“Our client base has always been over this side of the city and we have been able to tap into a large base of clients who have moved into this part of the city. The suburbs south of the CBD have experienced a huge population explosion and we have found we have been able to establish a good presence.”

The firm is in the process of amalgamating its Ilam and Riccarton offices with its Upper Riccarton base, while retaining the Barrington office.

Scrambling around

Also enjoying life in the outskirts are Weston Ward and Lascelles, formerly based on Chester Street West (opposite the old courts building) and now resident on Leslie Hills Drive in Riccarton.

David Houston
David Houston, partner at
Weston Ward and Lascelles

The five-storey office building was badly affected by the 22 February quake, and partner David Houston initially suspected there was a blaze in the building.

“The old stone church over the road had collapsed, and due to the ensuing dust cloud I assumed our building was on fire. When I got to the bottom, having had to push away parts of the ceiling, I saw that the elevator shaft on the outside of the building had come away and was leaning towards where I was. There was liquefaction already pumping out around the building.”

After the building was red-stickered, the firm had to scramble around to get a temporary base.

“We ended up in an old villa in Papanui Road with three or four of us to an office which wasn’t good, but at least through our connections with Law Alliance New Zealand we were able to get laptops and cellphones and what have you out of Auckland. And then we discovered the building we are at now, which we have named Weston Ward and Lascelles House,” he says.

About three weeks after the quake the firm got a court order for access to the old building. A team of about 20 manoeuvred through the liquefaction and got up to the fourth floor where they rummaged around for anything salvageable, despite the lean on the adjacent hotel.

“We threw everything out of the fourth floor in taped up wool sacks, put it all in a truck to my and our neighbour’s garages and then slowly, piece by piece, reassembled files and everything else, and got things up and running.”

Chantal Morkel
Chantal Morkel, associate at
Cavell Leitch

He says the firm initially looked to rent the Riccarton property but was able to buy it for “quarter of a million more than we intended to originally offer”.

“It’s been a great move from our clients’ point of view as they love the access and carparking. When we first moved here a lot of our staff said they were glad that we moved into only a two-storey building.”

David Houston says the firm – which began in 1883 – has no intention of returning to the city, due to the nature of their work – largely commercial and common law “with a heavy bias toward family law” and their client base.

“We are very happy where we are, the building is named after us, it’s been a good investment, clients love us because we are close enough to the city but also near the arterial roads.”

Law and long-distance running

Sole practitioner Shannon-Leigh Litt also moved out of the city – in her case to Lyttelton – but not because of the quakes.

She moved to the Bay of Plenty before taking off overseas. On her return she had a good incentive to choose the hilly port town to live and work in.

A view of Lyttleton Harbour
Lyttleton Harbour

“I had returned to Christchurch after a stint in the United States pursuing my professional running career as a long distance trail and mountain athlete.

“I loved living in Lyttelton and would spend a lot of time running in the hills there, training for a place in the 2016 100km World Championships which I qualified for with the New Zealand B standard; however, I did not end up going.

“Running long distances helps clear the mind and goes well with the law which can be stressful dealing with criminal clients.”

Ms Litt has moved back to Christchurch in order to be closer to the courts.

“The only disadvantage living in Lyttelton might be if the court changed a court time at short notice and if I didn’t know, though the Christchurch court runs really well and is very professional.”

She says as well as her running, the advantages of living and working in Lyttelton were the “tranquillity of the town and easy going feeling with a slightly alternative edge”.

Back to the action

Naturally the outskirts of a city isn’t suitable for all practitioners, and larger firms tend to find they need to be in a city’s heart and near their main business feed.

Cavell Leitch is one firm that has returned to the CBD, moving in March 2017 from Addington to the BNZ Centre in Cashell Mall. This is not far from its former base in the Clarendon Tower building, which was badly hit by the February 2011 quake and later demolished.

Exterior view of the Christchurch BNZ Centre
Cavell Leitch’s new premises, in the BNZ Centre

An associate, Chantal Morkel, says during the magnitude 6.3 jolt, the stairwell collapsed. The firm was based on levels 14-16, and about 70-80 staff members were unable to go past level 11.

“We were trapped for about five or six hours and, eventually, with the help of the Fire Brigade, we were able to track down the building through some of the fire exits. Ceiling boards had come down and there was a lot of water and a lot of nails had popped out. Fortunately, no one was injured other than some people treading on those nails.

“It was extraordinarily frightening, there were a number of aftershocks throughout the time we were trapped in the building, some of magnitude five and even six, so we were shaken around a good bit. But we all kept ourselves calm, and were confident that we would get out. Fortunately, we had made contact with the Fire Brigade early on, so they knew where we were, and we were rescued when they were able to come along that evening.”

Collapsed staircase at Cavell Leith after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake
The collapsed stairwell from Cavell Leitch
in the Clarendon Tower building

Initially the firm moved mainly to temporary premises at the BNZ on Riccarton Road with some others working remotely at offices, including one near the airport, before moving to more stable premises just off Lincoln Road in Addington two weeks later.

Ms Morkel says while that ensured the firm was able to continue its business, it was never going to be a permanent move.

As well as feeling it was important they moved back to the city as part of the rebuild, it was essential for their own business and their almost 100 employees.

“We have always been in the city, since the days when the firm started many moons ago, our heart was definitely in the heart of the city. Our intention was always to be there, it’s a wonderful place to be, close to other professionals, the banks and commerce,” she says.

Cavell Leitch’s new premises, in the BNZ Centre, takes up almost half a city block where Whitcoulls once stood.

Last updated on the 29th March 2018