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Equestrian’s ride from shearing gang to investigating corporate corpses

26 October 2017 - By Jock Anderson

With a law degree, but not convinced after her first job if law was for her, daughter of Taranaki Megan Gundesen went off and worked as a snow hostess at Turoa ski field, cleaned houses and worked in a shearing gang.

“After that I decided law had some appeal, so I went to Wellington and worked for Oakley Moran, and gradually moved into the field of employment law, which is my passion,” says Megan, who, with more than 30 years experience, recently setup her own firm – FairPlay Legal - in New Plymouth.

Megan started at Wilson Henry, now Hesketh Henry, in Auckland, “doing general civil work, a bit of criminal, a bit of traffic”.

Name

Megan Rose (Megan) Gundesen

Born

New Plymouth

Age 57
Entry to law Graduated LLB from Auckland University in 1984. Admitted in 1984.
Workplace

Founder and director of FairPlay Legal, New Plymouth.

Specialist area

Employment law and HR.


“I was there in the mid-1980s when the stockmarket was booming. Every corporate in the world was going - equity corp, chase corp. In the latter half of that decade they became corpses.

“I took the ride on the up and there was such a party atmosphere in Auckland in those years. Entertaining galore and lots of money splashing around. It was an enormously fun time to be a young person practising in the middle of Auckland. I had a lot of fun.

photo of Megan Gundesen

“I took time off, before moving to Wellington to work for Tom Goddard, Sandra Moran and John Tizard - specialists in defamation and employment law. John Tizard recently acted for Andrew Little – a friend of mine – in the defamation case brought by Earl Hagaman.

“I poked around among the corpses of a lot of the companies that had gone into receivership, because I then acted primarily for the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) – a lender of last resort, on speculative ventures such as llama farms, oyster farms, deer farms and race horse studs.

“I had a wonderful office on top of the DFC building looking over Wellington harbour. In the wake of the October 1987 crash I was in court a lot on bankruptcy, pursuing personal guarantors, liquidation of companies and receiverships.

“It was the back end of the boom and bust in the 1980s. It was special and I’m lucky I saw that cycle of the financial wild west.”

Drama and intrigue

After travelling extensively overseas Megan returned to New Plymouth and joined Govett Quilliam, eventually becoming a partner. “That was when I discovered a passion for employment law. It is what I am destined to do, with all the drama and intrigue of family law but not quite the heartache.”

Megan took time off between Govett Quilliam and RMY Legal, where she was a senior associate, to have three children in three years.

During that time she was a specialist advisor for the Legal Services Board, and also taught a law subject at the Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki (WITT) for about five years.

“I was a stay-at-home mum and still did three things in that time. I took on some mediation work, a couple of hours a week for the Legal Services Board, and WITT teaching, so was able to make a reasonable income and still be home most of the time with the children.”

When daughter Francesca was five, Megan went to RMY Legal as a senior associate and since then has always worked three days a week.

“That’s the secret for me, I don’t know how parents can both work full-time and give children the time they need, unless you have a family member living at home looking after them.

“I was able to be with the children, work, go riding, and look after an 11-acre farm with four horses, 17 sheep - soon to be 12 – because I want to get five of them into the freezer.”

Horses feature large in Megan’s life and she and her daughters are accomplished horsewomen.

Mountains

A show jumper on her 17-hands Clydesdale thoroughbred cross Solly, she was founder and inaugural chair of the Taranaki Equestrian Network, which co-ordinates and lobbies for riding access for thousands of riders across the province.

“I love competing and challenging myself with the thrill of jumping heights at speed. It’s a very physical sport. I realised how physical it was when I came to climb Mt Taranaki with a bunch of active kayakers, cyclists, double income no kids types.”

“I nailed it. The horse riding had made me so much fitter than I realised. I scampered up the mountain. It made me doubly appreciate what horse riding gave me.”

Her eldest daughter Eden (21), a premier netball player, is studying medicine at Auckland University and Francesca (now 17) - in her final year at high school - captains the First X1 hockey team and has played for Taranaki Under-18s.

But it is her 19-year old Waikato University student son Tom Florence, a semi-professional rugby player, who is likely to be better known. Weighing in at 103kg and standing 191cm, Tom – with flaming red hair and nicknamed Tflo - is playing as a forward for the Port Taranaki Bulls after playing for the Waikato Chiefs’ U-20s team last year.

“From being an anti-rugby person in my youth I have now become quite impressed by the rugby industry. I’ve read Cory Jane’s book Winging It, John Kirwan’s All Blacks Don’t Cry, and want to read Legacy, by James Kerr.

“I want to understand the industry my son’s in and what the All Blacks bring to New Zealand life. It’s also inspiring to read about how a sport can change, which is important for me as a horse rider and with my Taranaki equestrian group.

“I do yoga to maintain my flexibility and equanimity. I’ve visited Vancouver and a few Christmases ago took all three children for a month in Myanmar, to show them another culture and people living under a strong Buddhist faith.”

Going solo

Megan launched her own firm because she wanted the challenge of running a business for herself. “I also wanted the challenge of digital and technology and to keep abreast with that. I am planning on living a long time yet and unless I grab it and get on top now it is going to leave me behind.”

Presently working on her own, she expects, as she gets busier, to take on one or two more lawyers and also grow the HR side of the business.

“The campground at Wai-iti on the Taranaki coast is my favorite holiday spot - it’s stylish. Funky, modern converted containers and a cool café on the beach which has superb art work by Terry Urbahn, a friend of mine. Slippers and dressing gowns in the morning, I like that.

“For my 50th birthday party I challenged myself to do two things. I sang the Netherworld Dancing Toys’ song For Today on stage, and my sisters and I did a dance routine to Dancing Queen.

“We choreographed that with my sister in Auckland and my other sister in London, practising remotely from each other and sending videos. We managed to pull it off and do it on the night.

“I like a bit of reggae in the afternoon - Fat Freddy’s Drop and Home Brew, plus Bruno Mars, Dunedin band Six60, Macklemore, Etta James (my sister called her latest child Etta).

“I go to bed with LawTalk magazine – true. I used to be an avid reader and movie-goer but now I have to keep up with the law.

“My sister in law was part of the research the Law Society did a few years ago into their branding, particularly LawTalk. I like its mix of light reading to intense stories, and the perfect story to end your day.

“My favourite film is Whale Rider. My sister, Anna Gundesen, was the first assistant director and I loved its humour, its soulfulness and, of course, the gorgeous Cliff Curtis.

“I’m a Country Calendar and Graham Norton fan and liked the Breaking Bad series and Grand Designs.

“I drive a Toyota Fielder – a small station wagon – and a Ford Territory to tow horse floats.”

Princess in gumboots

“We had a dog and two cats and now one cat – the dog and other cat died this year. She’s a Persian-looking SPCA cat called Epsi –short for Epsilon. A princess in gumboots but a killer on rabbits and birds.”

With no other lawyers in the family, Megan’s mother was a speech language therapist and her Dad a chemist – both Taranaki born and bred.

“I wanted to go to university but did not want to do any of the subjects I did at school, so chose a broad brush of social science subjects then took a year off. I travelled and stayed with a friend of my father’s in the United States.

“We would discuss far into the night whether a father should be convicted for stealing food for his hungry children or why someone should be convicted for protesting against obvious pollution. I was drawn to people being in unfair situations or challenging the status quo.”

Two cases Megan won at the Court of Appeal stand out and are still referred to.

She acted for television retailer Tisco in the mid-1980s against a Tisco serviceman who repaired old televisions in his own time and sold them on with a label indicating they were serviced by a Tisco technician. The Court of Appeal upheld Tisco’s view that the technician breached his duty of loyalty and fidelity because – even in the secondhand market – he was competing indirectly against his employer.

“It’s a case about principle and about what an employee is entitled to do in their spare time. There is a principle that the employer is entitled to not be competed against indirectly. That was a good case and it still comes up when you are looking at competing duties.”

Lawyers at their best

Another memorable case which she won at the Court of Appeal was for the Hawera Meatworkers Union against Silverstream Farms when the minimum annual leave increased from three weeks to four weeks in 2007.

The union’s collective agreement allowed for an extra weeks leave for long service, which the Court of Appeal agreed the workers were entitled to on top of the new minimum four weeks annual leave.

“It was amazing appearing in front of the Court of Appeal. There’s such a vigorous debate with the judges on the points of law. It’s being a lawyer at its best.”

“Andrew Judd, the ex-major of New Plymouth, who calls himself a recovering racist, would be my first choice of dinner guests, and Andrew Little who is a family friend and a great conversationalist. And Pam Corkery, she’s feisty, innovative and funny. I would like to pick her brains about her idea to set up a women’s brothel in Auckland a few years ago.

“We would have baked scallops and salmon with a pickled ginger, coriander and finely chopped fresh pineapple salsa over greens from my garden. I’d find baby beetroot leaves, baby spinach, all kinds of lettuce and some rocket and chives and it would be live moments prior to hitting the table - the greens I mean. And boiled minted perla potatoes.

“Entrée would be a luscious platter of antipasto with a marguerita or more. Dessert would be affogato with Kapiti Vanilla Bean iceceam.  We would finish with a whiskey liquer - The Dubliner. I recently discovered and opened my first bottle mixed with honeycomb and a very slight coconut flavour. Delicious. You have inspired me to have a dinner party now.

“I’m gone from having a vegetarian non-gluten child to a carnivore who wants meat and carbohydrates with two dozen eggs a week.

“But you have to work your way through those extremes.”

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Last updated on the 26th October 2017