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‘If it feels good, we do it’: Russell McVeagh’s commitment to pro bono work

02 June 2017 - By Craig Stephen

Russell McVeagh pumps well over $1 million and 600 hours annually into pro bono work, an investment it says works both for itself and the “pretty obvious causes” it supports.

The firm provides the pro bono work for a number of community and non-profit groups, and gives a large number of those hours each year to community law centres.

Head and shoulders photo of Gary McDiarmid
Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid.

This connection began with the Mangere Community Law Centre in South Auckland in the 1980s and the Wellington Community Law Centre later that decade, with that work continuing at both centres on a one person, one day per week basis.

Recent work has included representing Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales in her fight to clarify the legality of her end of life decision-making, the Breast Cancer Research Trust, World Vision of New Zealand, SPCA Auckland, Mike King’s Key To Life charitable trust that works to prevent suicide and the Ākina Foundation on an energy project.

“As a committee I think we always think of ourselves as a group that never says no to any sensible request, we will almost always say yes. I can’t recall in recent years of saying no to anything, unless it is a non-charity. It’s about some pretty obvious causes where there’s genuine need and where we can make a difference,” says Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid.

The firm’s Pro Bono Committee contains seven members, including Mr McDiarmid; three from Wellington and four in Auckland, and is chaired by Wellington-based tax lawyer Shaun Connolly. Meetings are held about every two months to discuss applications and ongoing projects.

More than 800 hours on right-to-die case

Its highest profile pro bono case was that of Ms Seales, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011. Fearing a drawn-out and undignified death, Lecretia sought a physician-assisted death when she felt she’d reached the point where she had no quality of life.

Russell McVeagh partners Andrew Butler and Chris Curran and their team filed a statement of claim with the High Court, arguing her GP should not be prosecuted under the Crimes Act 1961 in assisting with her death, with Lecretia’s consent. The litigation included arguing interlocutory applications, preparing dozens of witness statements, over 100 pages of legal submissions, and conducting a three-day hearing in the High Court, in just over two months.

In all the firm dedicated 830 hours to the case.

“That was one of the bolder things we have done,” says the CEO. “It took a huge amount of resource, in terms of time and emotion but it was pretty gutting too; it’s hard work when you’ve got a person who is dying. But this was a cause she deeply believed in, and it was a politically-charged case as well so it wasn’t without its …. no-one was going to love you for it necessarily.

“I was particularly pleased with the way our partners and team in Wellington picked it up and ran with it, and believed in it because it was the right thing to do, it was standing up for someone’s rights.

“If it feels good we do it.”

Internal debate

He admits that there was a discussion internally about being involved in Ms Seales’ case due to the anticipated human resources.

Lecretia Seales
Lecretia Seales

“It was a conversation we had, because even with the best will in the world, there is definitely a big opportunity cost, to use the economists’ term, which is time spent that otherwise could have been taken up by a paying client.

“But the things that make something a success aren’t just dollars and cents. This was something that key people believed in deeply. It went to the board, and there was no hesitation [in giving it the go-ahead]. We never measured it, but there would have been an obvious impact to take two partners out of something, high-quality people who would otherwise be busy on something else. There’s an impact for sure.”

Although the High Court ruled against Ms Seales, the case attracted widespread public and media attention and generated significant debate around euthanasia laws in New Zealand, and personal choice. She died on 5 June 2015 aged 42.

Mr McDiarmid also cites the firm’s work with Cure Kids. “There’s nothing sadder than these terrible illnesses that affect kids.”

Despite providing assistance to several organisations, he says the firm isn’t stretched by its dedication to pro bono work.

“There isn’t a shortage of willingness from the firm’s perspective to support initiatives and there’s no shortage of lawyers within the firm who wish to put something back and do something constructive.

“It is a lot of money we spend, but from our point of view it is right that we want people in the organisation to help out. They are in a privileged profession in a top firm and that’s part of the giving back, and we believe strongly in that.”

Seeing another side of life

Mr McDiarmid says as well as the obvious benefits of providing their expertise to organisations and individuals who need it, there are spin-offs to the lawyers themselves.

“I spent some years as a Youthline counsellor, which was voluntary work, and I felt I made a difference. There is that side of doing good and using your skills to do good; but there’s also another benefit, and that is meeting people and getting involved in cases that you would never otherwise need to do.

The pro bono team
Making children's lunches (from left): Rupert Jackson,
Josephine Cutfield, Zoe Rodgers, Olivia Taylor.

“For example, the community law centres which we provide pro bono work for, in Wellington, Lower Hutt and Mangere, they are opportunities to see a side of life that may be different, so the lawyer could learn a bit about criminal law at low level.

“People find themselves in some pretty terrible circumstances and for our young lawyers they’re learning other life skills, understanding differences in people, differences in law, the way people struggle in the law, the challenges within the legal system in terms of resourcing and they also gain good advocacy skills.

“A common problem for people is getting into debt or unscrupulous lenders, or getting into contracts they shouldn’t have, so it’s beneficial for our people to negotiate for those people.”

In addition to its pro bono work, Russell McVeagh supports staff members keen to be actively involved in the community, with each team spending one working day per year volunteering at a charity.

“There’s all kinds of things people have done – Ronald McDonald House, beach clean-ups, City Mission, Dress for Success, there’s a massive range of things that staff have got involved and it’s an initiative driven by the teams themselves,” says Pro Bono Committee member Joanna Comerford.

As part of this, one new initiative staff have embarked on has been setting up a Homework Club working with children to help them with their homework on a weekly basis at the multi-cultural, Glen Taylor School in Glen Innes, Auckland.

The firm also sponsors a number of initiatives for young people, such as scholarships and debating competitions to help them develop their skills and discover a passion for law.

Last updated on the 2nd June 2017