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Law gave swimming champion competitive challenge

10 September 2015 - By Jock Anderson

In a swimming career which began when he was two years old, crime barrister John Munro competed at two Commonwealth Games – the first when he was 17 - and held the New Zealand 400 metres individual medley record for ten years.

"I started swimming very young … My mother tells me it was because I was energetic in the womb and she wanted to get me into a sport as soon as possible…" says John, head of criminal law chambers at Auckland's Sentinel Chambers, which he formed in 2009.

He got into law because it offered challenges similar to top-level competitive swimming.

John David (John) Munro

BornWestmere, Auckland.
Age43.
Entry to lawGraduated LLB from Auckland University in 1999. Admitted 2000.
WorkplaceHead of chambers at Sentinel Chambers, Auckland.
Specialty areaCriminal law.


John finished sixth in his event at the 1990 Games in Auckland and seventh in the Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1994. He qualified for but did not attend the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

A highlight of his swimming career was gaining a full scholarship in 1991 to attend the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

John Munro
John Munro

"At the time USC was the best swimming university in the US … The world record holder in my event – David Lee Wharton – was there … He was one of my idols…

"I decided to go there and pursue my dream of becoming the best in the world.

"USC is a private university slap bang in middle of LA, south central … It's a wealthy university in middle of very poor area … Most of the Hollywood producers' sons and daughters went there, it had a great film school and the facilities were second to none…

"Riots kicked off there after the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

"It was hard work and the level of competition was very high – exactly what I wanted. I was training to the extreme – swimming 100km a week in the 1984 Olympic pool on campus."

At 17 John got to 12th in the world in the 400m individual medley – "my best ever ranking."

"Swimmers were a lot younger then … I was at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in my seventh form year and retired from swimming at 22."

After finishing competitive swimming he went into surf lifesaving and represented New Zealand for a few years in that as well.

"I haven't surfed since our first child was born three years ago but I began training her up on a boogie board when she was two so I hope to start surfing with her one day … out at Piha and Muriwai…"

After three years in the United States John returned to New Zealand to do a law degree, graduating in 2000.

His first job in law was in New Plymouth, because he wanted to go surfing there. It's also where he met his lawyer wife Rochelle.

He did a three year stint lawyering in the United Kingdom and seeing Europe before returning home in 2007.

Growing up in Auckland's Westmere, John still lives in the area with his young family.

"I was attracted to law because of the years I spent swimming at a high level … I needed something that was going to be similar to racing in some ways…

"I loved racing, preparing and training and getting on the blocks, showing skills and coming up with results…

"I thought about what I could for a career that is interesting … Criminal law is interesting.

"The advocacy provides the adrenalin - preparing for an event and doing the best you can once the event starts … Criminal law has those analogies and the competitive challenge…"

With a sister Helen, also a lawyer, John likes to relax reading case law ("They laugh at me in chambers for my social reading"), autobiographies on criminal lawyers and famous New Zealand sports people, such as Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell.

His current read is Gold in the Water: the true story of ordinary men and their extraordinary dream of Olympic glory - the Dick Jochum-coached Santa Clara swimming team of San Francisco.

"I watch TV cartoons with my daughter, she likes Peppa Pig and Postman Pat … After a while you find yourself actually watching the cartoons and taking an interest in them."

His own preferences are Murder on a Sunday Morning and Death on the Staircase by French Oscar-winning documentary maker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

Murder on a Sunday Morning follows the defence team building their case for the innocence of 15-year old Brenton Butler - wrongfully accused of murder.

Death on the Staircase, also known as The Staircase, documents the trial of Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife.

"They are both on YouTube and if you see them, I guarantee you won't put them down…"

John and his wife Rochelle enjoy holidaying in the islands of Thailand and Vietnam, with Bali a top spot for surfing: "It's very relaxing, there's nothing to do and we lie around enjoying good reasonably priced food…"

With experience as both a prosecutor and defence lawyer John says he has not thought much about whether he would be interested in becoming a judge.

Barrister Richard Earwaker, from John's chambers, was appointed a District Court Judge at Manukau in July.

"I enjoy what I'm doing, so maybe later…

"I remember a quote from John Thaw's TV series Kavanagh QC, when he's considering a judgeship and he's told: 'Don't do that, you become an umpire … no longer one of the players … you won't enjoy it as much…"

He advises folk studying law who might be interested in the practice of criminal law to be prepared to take the knocks, work late nights and under pressure with little thanks.

"But be passionate about the pursuit of justice and working in an area that is very challenging but incredibly rewarding when justice is served."

Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for most of his career in journalism. Contact Jock at jockanderson123@gmail.com.

Last updated on the 10th September 2015