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Focus on law practice in Invercargill

02 March 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Locals prefer to describe Invercargill as the gateway to some of the South Island’s best tourist attractions, rather than the more colourful, perhaps unfavourable, descriptions given to it over the years.

The pace of life and comradery in the southern city of about 52,000 inhabitants is another attraction for locals. Rex Chapman has worked as a lawyer in Invercargill for 36 years, most of those at Cruickshank Pryde where he is now a partner. He enjoys the stability of working in the law in Invercargill. “During the 30 years I have been at Cruickshank Pryde, only one partner has left the partnership, and that was because he was appointed a judge.”

A bridge over a stream in an Invercargill park

Mr Chapman says that, apart from technology, not much else has changed in the legal profession over the past three decades. “That’s one of the nice things about Invercargill. The pace of change is quite gradual.” One thing that has altered over the years is the region’s client-base. “From about the 1990s onwards there was a change here, from sheep and beef farms to dairying, which introduced a new type of client requiring a different range of legal services.”

Fergus More has also enjoyed a stable career in Invercargill since moving there more than 30 years ago. He joined Scholefield Cockroft Lloyd, where he is now a partner, in 1981. “There’s good bonhomie and there isn’t really a reason to shift,” he says. That bonhomie also extends to Invercargill’s broader legal community, Mr More says. “We’re all working professionally and advocating strongly for our clients, but we leave that in the courtroom. We all link in really well.”

He believes the professional respect and cordiality in the legal fraternity helps mitigate some of the stresses that lawyers might feel in bigger centres. “It’s not dog eat dog here, so you don’t feel the need for a break from the practice of law as you might further north if you’ve had a hell of a day dealing with a particular lawyer or client.”

Toni Green, a partner at Invercargill’s oldest law firm AWS and the President of the Southland branch of the New Zealand Law Society, says everybody knows everybody in the city’s legal community. “It’s good in terms of being able to pick up the phone and sort things out.”

Luring fresh talent

Ms Green says it can be difficult to attract staff to Invercargill. “There’s a stigma with the weather, and it’s a small city — but I think if they’re prepared to come here and nut it out, once they get to the point of having young children it’s much easier to juggle work and family in a smaller centre than in a big city.”

Mr Chapman says recruiting tends to go in cycles. “At some times it has been more difficult because of the lure of bigger centres, but we’re finding now that people are being attracted to Southland because it offers a very good lifestyle. It is close to the Queenstown Lakes District and Fiordland, and has a much lower cost of living, especially housing.” In fact, Invercargill’s median house price is just $235,000 according to data from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, compared to a national median of $516,000.

It’s not just housing that’s cheaper. “One of the reasons I came back here was I found Wellington a very expensive place to live,” says Emma Stanley, a local who moved home in 2012 after working in the capital for several years. “You don’t pay $5 an hour to park in town. Even going to the gym is just $10 to $12 a week. It’s just a much more affordable lifestyle.”

Family was another pull when it came to deciding to move back to Invercargill, Ms Stanley says. “I grew up in Invercargill and took the opportunity to return and be closer to family.”

Water tower in Invercargill

It’s that lure of family or partners that is one of Invercargill’s biggest drawcards when it comes to attracting new lawyers, says Ms Green. “We do find it hard to get staff here, but often we try to get them through some kind of local connection, whether it be family, or they’ve been to school here, or they’ve got a partner here.”

Family also influenced Fergus More’s move to Invercargill from Dunedin some 36 years ago, albeit for different reasons. “I’m actually one of a number of lawyers in my family and at the time I was admitted to the bar I felt there was a bit of overcrowding in Dunedin, with two elder brothers and a father working there. An opportunity presented itself for me to come to Invercargill and try law there, and that was in 1981.”

Sometimes, family plays no role in the decision-making process and the prospect of a decent job is lure enough. Charlotte White made the move to Invercargill after law school, to take up a solicitor role at French Burt in 2015. “It was a good job. I got the interview and figured I’d see what it was like. I liked the place and the people and decided to take the job.”

Ms White is the youngest lawyer at French Burt and says she finds the environment really supportive. “Especially when I first started. Everyone made sure if I needed help with anything, or had any questions they were happy to answer them. They gave me lots of chances to get different experiences.

“When I first started I spent a couple of weeks following people around and watching what they were doing. But I was quite lucky in that I was thrown into it, obviously with support and supervision, but I was seeing clients quite early on which was nice because it felt like I was doing something.”

Junior lawyers tend to get good, broad experience from early on in their careers in Invercargill says Toni Green. “I think that solicitors starting off in a firm in Invercargill get exposure to clients a lot earlier than they might in the bigger firms, and often get a lot wider range of work.”

Starting up and branching out

Smaller centres can sometimes present big opportunities. After moving back to Invercargill to work at a local firm, Emma Stanley decided to take the leap to open her own firm in 2014. She thinks, in some respects, going on her own was probably easier to do in her home town rather than a bigger centre.

Graph showing lawyers practising in Invercargill by year of admission

“You’ve still got to work as hard to build up your client base, but I think your overheads are lower and that certainly does help. I’ve got an office on the main street of Invercargill and I don’t think I could do that in Auckland or Wellington.”

Location doesn’t need to limit your client-base, Ms Stanley says. “I have clients that I acted for in Wellington who I still act for here. Likewise, we have clients who we’ve acted for down here who have moved out of Invercargill and we continue to act for them.”

Ms Stanley has ventured into the technology sphere, developing an app called Easy Law to help first-time homebuyers navigate the ins and outs of buying property. “I really wanted to have a product out there for first-time buyers because I found they were getting so much misinformation, whether that was from Google, or from family and friends.”

She says the advantage of working on a new product in a small town is working with people you know. “I think that’s one of the advantages of being in a small town, when you do get people on board to work on exciting things they really feel invested in it and are willing to go the extra mile for you.”

Home for lunch

A commute of more than 10 to 15 minutes is a rare thing in Invercargill. “Some of us walk to work, go home for lunch, finish the day at a respectable hour and enjoy family life,” says Mr More.

Without having to carve extra hours from your week simply getting to and from work, there is more time to enjoy your downtime. The deep south city is within an easy drive of some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, making weekend getaways an easy proposition. “It’s a place where you can enjoy the practice of law but you have huge opportunities to enjoy life outside of law,” he says.

“You can balance your practice of law with your other interests. Unless there’s a particular trial that you have to commit yourself to over the weekend, you can head away to Central Otago.”

Last updated on the 16th September 2019