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Sporty scribbler and the dark side of life above ‘the shop’

08 November 2018 - By Jock Anderson

Oamaru is a big change of pace after a younger Ben Coleman literally lived “above the shop” at one of London’s magic circle law firms where lawyers seldom saw the sun from Monday to Friday.

Now a partner in Dean and Coleman Law Group since 2010, he has the sun, sea, mountains, lakes and ski fields at his doorstep.

Ben went to London soon after graduating in 2000 and worked for two years as a para-legal in the commercial litigation team at the head office of international firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Name Benjamin Kade (Ben) Coleman
Born Wellington
Age 42
Entry to law Graduated BA (English Literature) from Victoria University in 1997 and LLB from Victoria University in 2000. Admitted in 2002.
Workplace Director at Dean & Coleman Law Group, Oamaru.
Speciality area Commercial, property, rural, environmental, and local government.

“For a young New Zealand lawyer coming out of law school and being reasonably impressionable it was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” says Ben.

“When working at Freshfields I had the opportunity to be involved in magic circle firm culture.”

A number of Kiwi lawyers were there at the same time and they also dealt with several at other major firms such as Slaughter & May and Linklaters.

“I was young and energetic and being paid reasonably well by the hour in British pounds, which was very attractive.”

Ben Coleman

And while working in London in the summer was a lot of fun, he says working in winter and being at the firm from 7am to late in the night “became quite punishing”.

“The culture of the firm was that if you required to stay past 11pm you would go upstairs to the top level and sleep in the Freshfields bunks.

“They had units up there, not unlike carriages you would sleep in on an overnight train.

“I did that about 15 times. The entire floor on the bottom of the building was the gym, another floor above that the café, then seven or eight working floors and the top floor was accommodation.

“You could live there without going outside, and in winter that’s what happens to the great majority of the people working at the firm.

“In winter if you are at the firm at 7am and not out till 8, 9 10 or 11pm, and had not had to time to go out and get some daylight during the day, you could go from Monday to Friday without seeing any sunlight.”

In London it can get dark before 4pm about mid-December.

He says while the quality of the work was exceptional, exciting and the cases worked on were often front page news, Freshfields had a high burnout rate of partners, and there were relationship problems with partners being too committed to the firm and not being as committed as they needed to be to their families.

“I was at the bottom rung of the ladder and to continue that progression path would have involved a long hard slog. It made me appreciate that in New Zealand there is generally a much better work/life balance. I made a conscious decision I wanted to have more of an impact through practising law in New Zealand and not to be involved in the lopsided work/life balance of the magic circle firms.”

Banking … then Oamaru  

When Ben returned to New Zealand in 2002 he worked for a year at the Bank of New Zealand in sales and compliance, then visited an agent to discuss opportunities with law firms and the Oamaru job came up.

“My mother has family in this area, so it was a natural choice and I have been with this firm ever since.

“I don’t think I would have foresaw staying when I first joined but it’s a fantastic town and the town and region have a strong growth up-curve and a good robust economy. Tourism is just one of the growing sectors.”

Ben’s business partner is Bill Dean – husband of Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean, National’s small business spokeswoman and a strong advocate for local tourism.

Married to Clare, a full-time mum and former legal executive, the couple have teenager Kate, son Harry (5) and a daughter Mary (3), known as Molly - an old family name given to her great grandmother.

Ben’s salesman father died in 2005 and his mother, a retired teacher, moved to Oamaru about five years ago to be closer to family. A cook at one of the local day care centres and also involved in the Presbyterian church in Oamaru, she is a keen gardener – taking home three first prizes at the North Otago Horticultural Society awards this year.

One of the first things Ben immersed himself in was sport. A cricketer since he was eight, he is still “running around the field”. He captained the Oamaru club senior team for many years, batted sixth and bowled part-time.

He has been involved with the Oamaru Cricket Club ever since he arrived in town, was president until 2014 and is currently vice president.

“The North Otago Cricket Association has been huge part of my life. I served on the board of the association and as a selector for the Hawke Cup representative side and have served as New Zealand Cricket code of conduct commissioner for North Otago since 2007.”

He also served as vice president of the Excelsior Rugby Club, as trustee of the Waitaki District Community House and has been retained by many community organisations including the Kakanui Offshore Fishing Club, Waitoa Park Golf Club and Oamaru Wine and Food Festival.

The family go skiing as often as possible, to Treble Cone at Wanaka and Cardrona, and Round Hill, near Tekapo, where their children learn. “The skifields, mountains, lakes and rivers are nice and handy.

An occasional columnist  

“I enjoy arguing and at school they could see me becoming a lawyer because of my predilection towards arguing. I also have an enjoyment of the power of the spoken and written word.”

A member of the Property Law Section of the New Zealand Law Society, and an occasional columnist, Ben has written several columns for the Oamaru Mail on everything from legal issues and shipwrecks, to sustainability - using the Easter Island de-forestation disaster as an example.

“We have travelled extensively through New Zealand and enjoy Hanmer Springs because of the wonderful air and hot springs.”

“We have caught the Wanaka bug and are building a bach there at the moment in Northlake, a new subdivision just north of Mt Iron.

Ben with the Super Rugby trophy won by the Highlanders in 2015
Ben with the Super Rugby trophy won by the
Highlanders in 2015

“In my 20s I went through south-east Asia a few times with university friends … Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand Burma, experiencing small slices of village life, riding elephants, and backpacking the whole way.

“Five of us from Victoria University lived out of backpacks for months, deciding where to go as we went along.

“I’ve also travelled reasonably extensively round the south west of the United States … California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah. Amateur geology interests me, and it is fascinating to see the Grand Canyon and other places of geological importance. The vastness of the landscape is exceptional and utterly incomprehensible.

“I have no talent for playing music but Clare and I are huge music fans. We like the Phoenix Foundation from Wellington and saw them recently in Dunedin with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. It was one of the best concerts I’d ever been to.

“I like Shirley Bassey, Frank Sinatra and Imagine Dragons, but have mellowed a lot from Eminem and hip-hop of my 20s.

“My playlist includes Swedish musician Avicii, Coldplay, AC/DC, George Michael, Foo Fighters, Queen, The Doors, David Bowie, Midnight Oil, Dire Straits, and our true favourites Johnny Cash and Fleetwood Mac.”

Being strong at school in English, history and the arts, Ben majored in English Literature for his BA, drawn to Jane Austen, William Thackeray and Daniel Defoe, as well as Irish author Bram Stoker.

“We subscribe to Neon and Lightbox, watch the news when it is on and I’m a fan of live sport. We are also Game of Thrones fans and over winter attempted to watch as much as we could in preparation for season 8 next year.

“There’s a very good Lightbox series called Black Sails, about pirating and privateering in the Caribbean in its golden age – a meshing of historically accurate characters with fictional characters.”

Twin moggie cats called Cosmo and Callie were located by daughter Kate, who works at the local vet, and arrived home as two tiny kittens in January.

Ben drives a 2.2 litre seven-seater Hyundai Santa Fe diesel car fitted with roof racks and a roof box for ski gear. “It is powerful and suits family needs to get into the hills.”

Working for clients  .. and The Highlanders

He says there is no one moment in his legal career that particularly stands out “however there’s been many instances of a feeling of satisfaction and pride in helping a client achieve their goals no matter how ambitious they have been”.

“Through a thorough and robust process of being able to navigate our way through complex circumstances to deliver an exceptional result without comprise, and to be able to promote the client’s interest to the maximum advantage possible.

“Going through law school I became more interested in how law can work for both sides of a particular matter in terms of interpretation. There’s a real skill in being able to promote your client’s interests within the definition of the law to get the best result for the client.

“As a regional firm we were highly commended in regional law firm of the year in the New Zealand Law Awards in 2016. We were thrilled to be recognised nationally for that.”

Outside law, he is particularly satisfied with the contribution he has made as a director of the Highlanders rugby team.

“When I came on to the board in 2014 the Highlanders were close to last (in the Super Rugby competition) and struggling financially. We conducted a review, made a number of decisions which changed the structure of the organisation and made a number of appointments.

“We believe this led to a more collective and inspiring organisation for everyone to be part of. Performances started to elevate. We made the semi-finals and then won the Super Rugby competition in 2015.”

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would ideally be a professional golfer, assuming I had the talent. I looked at becoming a broadcasting journalist in my final year at high school.”

Last updated on the 8th November 2018