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Focus on legal practice on the West Coast

07 August 2017 - By Kate Geenty

The sun shines through bush at Ten Mile Creek
The sun shines through morning mist rising from the bush at Ten Mile Creek, on SH6 between Greymouth and Punakaiki

Working in a small, regional centre can be challenging and rewarding on both a personal and professional level, says Colin Smith, a partner at Greymouth firm Hannan & Seddon.

Mr Smith says regional practice enables a lawyer to become a big part of the community and also form personal relationships with clients. “Having practised here for almost 30 years, you travel through life with your clients, with the highs and lows that go with that and a lot of them become personal friends. You work with them and their families as they grow up, and then their children start buying property and getting into business. I’m dealing with sometimes three generations of one family.”

Community involvement

As well as forming close personal bonds with clients, lawyers in regional practice also get to form strong community ties. Legal skills are in high demand from community organisations and Mr Smith says getting involved in the community is good for a lawyer’s practice as well as personally rewarding.

Original Greymouth Courthouse
The original Greymouth courthouse on Guinness St,
opened in 1912 by MP for Grey electorate
Sir Arthur Guinness.

“I would say lawyers as a profession, because of the suite of skills we have, are in high demand in our communities. Whether that’s helping community organisations draft charitable trust deeds, helping people set up organisations or helping govern organisations. I think it’s one of the great strengths of the profession that we do have a skill set that enables us to provide very significantly to our community, and the profession does. I don’t know of a lawyer here on the West Coast who isn’t currently or at some stage in their professional life hasn’t been involved in the community in one way or another.”

Mr Smith was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit last year for his community service, but is keen to share the kudos with the people he’s worked alongside through the years. “It is generally those in the higher profile leadership roles that get these awards but there are hundreds of other people who are equally deserving but never receive recognition. In a way, you are receiving these awards on behalf of all those people on the ground who are actually doing the hard yards for their communities.”

Jane Duncan, who is a director at Stevens Orchard Lawyers’ Westport office, is also heavily involved in the community, previously as trustee and chairman of local social services agency called Homebuilders West Coast Trust and more recently as the chairman of the Buller Rugby Union, the first female to hold that position in a Rugby Union in New Zealand.

Wide ranging work and flexible conditions

General practice, rather than specialist work, is the norm in regional towns, and Mr Smith says he’s been involved in everything from criminal jury trials, through to mining law, commercial law, company law, employment law, maritime law, relationship property law, general conveyancing and even family law in the days of custody and access.

Greymouth Courthouse
The new Greymouth courthouse around the corner.
Opened in 2007, the new building is three times larger
than the old building, and features two courtrooms.

“The thing about working in a small provincial practice is you get a wonderful variety and cross-section of legal work. No two days are the same, you are frequently challenged with new legal issues and there is no room for boredom. You also get the opportunity to work with great colleagues in the profession in the small legal community such as we have on the West Coast,” he says.

Mrs Duncan says the range of legal work she encounters keeps life interesting. “You think you’ve seen it all and then something comes in the door that you’ve never dealt with before”

Kelsey Mundy is a local who returned to the Coast after university. Currently working as a solicitor in the Westport office of Connors Legal, she says regional practice can mean quicker career progression. “It’s good in the sense of being in a smaller firm your career advances a lot faster than it would anywhere else because you’ve got a lot of independence and responsibility early on.”

She’s also been able to enjoy flexible working conditions since starting a family. “I left and had a child and then initially came back part-time and it’s been so easy because it’s just so flexible.” With work just a minute’s drive from home and daycare also just up the road, she’s also able to pop out and see her daughter during the day if necessary.

Attracting new talent

Despite the rewarding nature of regional practice, it is hard to attract fresh talent. “If only young practitioners could see the challenges and rewards that provincial practice provides. I can’t imagine where a city practice would provide the same wealth of opportunity in terms of the breadth of the law you end up dealing with,” says Colin Smith. He grew up on the West Coast, and after living in various places both in New Zealand and overseas and trying jobs as diverse as Forestry, commercial fishing, truck driving, and working in a second-hand store, he decided to return home.

The main street in Greymouth
The current offices of Whitcombe Guinness
and Kitchingham, who have been operating in
Greymouth since 1867.

“I was interested in returning to a community I knew, working with people I knew and actually giving something back to a region and community that had been extremely good to me. The drive was towards returning to the Coast, but I knew I had to return with a qualification that would enable me to do something positive.” So, at the age of 28, he went to Otago University to study law before eventually returning to the Coast, where he has been ever since.

It was a desire to broaden her legal experience that led Jane Duncan to the West Coast from Wellington in 2010. “I looked at a map of New Zealand and thought to myself where could I live? Then I selected about nine regional centres, identified the reputable law firms in those centres and wrote to them on the off-chance they might have a job.”

Mrs Duncan joined Stevens Orchard in its Westport office, with the intention of staying a few years. “To be honest, I didn’t envisage staying long, long-term, but I enjoyed the lifestyle and the community, got offered a partnership, met my now-husband, got married, bought a property. It’s been a very, very good move and a wonderful opportunity for me.”

She’s currently looking for a solicitor to join her at Stevens Orchard’s Westport office, but is struggling to find someone. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult. There must be people out there who are willing to take the plunge and to share the great experiences and opportunities I have been afforded.”

Guinness and Kitchingham building
Guinness and Kitchingham office,
Guinness St, Greymouth.
http://westcoast.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/19868

She admits the West Coast is probably too humble and therefore, isn’t great at self-promotion. “I don’t think we are very good at selling ourselves, I guess we don’t feel the need to yell it from the roof tops. We live in such a remarkable, untouched part of the country that constantly astounds us – we forget to tell people about it. We are a vibrant, progressive, supportive community where accessibility to nature, the outdoors and real life experiences are right here, literally in your backyard; where the average commute to work is about four minutes and parking is free!”

Portrait of a Profession says that Sir Arthur Guinness began practice in Greymouth in 1867. Sir Arthur arrived in New Zealand with his parents in 1852 and was educated at Christ’s College in Christchurch. He moved into politics, representing the Grey electorate in Parliament for 30 years. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1913. The firm he founded in 1867, Whitcombe Guinness and Kitchingham, is still operational in Greymouth, as is Hannan and Seddon which was founded in September 1867.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019