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Paddy Steele looks back

08 December 2015 - By Chris Ryan

Aspects of Paddy Steele's life in the law have been told before, but the whole story is worth retelling: she is one of the few who remembers the profession as it was six or seven decades ago.

Now an honorary member of the New Zealand Law Society, Paddy lives in comfortable retirement, and speaks enthusiastically about her career.

She says she had no thought of becoming a lawyer when she left school at the end of 1944. 

photo of Paddy Steele and 50 yr cake 
Paddy celebrates 50 years in practice.

"My father AJ West-Walker, who had a Cambridge law degree, had his own small legal practice in Wellington and wanted all three of his children to work in his office. My sister Maureen, two years older than me, had learned shorthand-typing and went to work there but she hated it and left after two years to become a nurse. I went to Gilbey's Business College in Wellington at the beginning of 1945, studied shorthand-typing in the mornings, and went to work in my father's office in the afternoons.

"Ava Saunders was the office typist and administration person then. She also did title searches and document filing and she took me to the Land Transfer Office and taught me how to do it, and also the banking, which was much different to now as the banks closed at 3pm after having opened at 10am! She also took me to the (then) Magistrates' and Supreme courts and taught me how to file documents there.

Land Transfer Office

"I didn't have a law degree but I went along with all the Wellington law clerks to the Land Transfer Office, did title searches and document filing. In the morning you came in with documents for registration, put your files on the counter, and then went off to morning tea, picking up the files when you came back. 

"I found it to be great fun and I got to know all the other clerks, and the LTO staff and registrar who were enormously helpful. We also got to know each another when we met to exchange cheques in the office of the firm that held the title on the 'settlement day' of the sale and purchase. Later, as new younger clerks arrived, I found myself teaching them too!

"My father expected my brother Nigel, who was two years younger than me, to study law, then join the firm and I suppose eventually take over the practice. But Nigel had no interest in studying law, didn't really want to go to university at all. He was very clever and loved mechanical things and fixing things – after he left school he used to make some money repairing clocks for a watchmaker in Waring Taylor Street called Tremains. My father, who was a strict man, was very disappointed, very upset and angry.

"Nigel had started at university even though he wasn't keen so I went along to keep him company and we did English together at 8am lectures. I also did psychology and economics. Around about this time, my father suggested to Nigel that he might become a patent attorney which did not require law study, and Nigel liked that idea. I said well, if Nigel isn't interested in law I'll give it a go and so I started studying, partly to keep the peace in the family. 

"I went to lectures from 4-7pm every day and worked at my father's office for the rest of the time. It was about then that my father decided that the family would move from our two acres in Stokes Valley and come into town which was easier for me with university lectures.

"When I went up to Victoria on the first day Professor Campbell interviewed me and looked at my UE marks. He said, 'They are not very high are they? Why do you want to do law?'  I didn't mention my brother but said we had had a family difficulty and I wanted to help my father. Professor Campbell told me that there was a special course running then to help men coming back from the war in which you would be admitted as a solicitor but not as a barrister, and that I could do that. This suited me because I only wanted to go to the Magistrate's Court anyway. It meant you didn't have to do Roman Law and some other areas which pleased me as well."

Few women

Even though she was the only woman in the class of around 20 men, Paddy says she never felt any hostility or surprise from the others that she was studying law. 

"I didn't mind at all being the only one. I already knew most of them through meeting law clerks at the LTO and the court, and I'd been to balls with them, square dancing in the gym and so on, so we were all friends. And as it was a six-year course with mostly the same group, we spent a lot of time together. They treated me as 'one of the boys'. In just one class, Torts, there was one other woman and that was Shirley Smith, who was always ready for an argument!"

Paddy completed her exams at the end of 1954 and was admitted in early 1955, in the meantime continuing to work with her father. "But three weeks after I was admitted I went overseas! I had been longing to go away and see some of the world, but I had to promise my father I would be back by Christmas that year."

photo of Paddy Steele and father 
Paddy with her father AJ West-Walker.

Paddy was also eager to meet some of her relatives in England. Her mother, who was a registered nurse, was an Irish Catholic while her father was an English Anglican. They married despite the opposition of their families and emigrated to New Zealand, never to return. 

"They were virtually disowned by their families and had no contact. I had always missed having cousins, aunts and uncles. While I was in England I managed to meet my father's sister, some cousins and my grandfather who ran a gallery in New Bond Street. It seemed that meeting family from around the world was enough for them to forgive and forget. They were delighted to meet me and impressed I had a law degree."

Looking for work

Paddy had travelled to Europe on the Italian ship Oronsay which docked at Genoa, and she travelled on by train to London through Switzerland and France. She had little money beyond her fare to London and immediately searched for work and somewhere to live. She was lucky enough to be invited with a friend made on the voyage, to stay with the Australian writer Eric Lambert and his wife, who she had also met on the voyage, at a house they were renting in Wimbledon.

She went to the local labour exchange but soon found that London law firms were not keen on employing Kiwis because they tended not to stay very long. She eventually found work as a shorthand-typist in a typing pool of nine in Wimbledon's only law firm, fortuitously close to where she was staying. Her role was to replace typists going on their summer holidays which was ideal. She found that straight away she was also doing conveyancing, albeit very different to the New Zealand system. "I loved it there. I went off every weekend with friends met on the ship, all over Britain and on the Continent."

She returned to Wellington by Christmas 1955 as promised, to find that while she was in England her father had moved the office from Panama Street to Willis Street near the corner of Lambton Quay. As soon as she was back Paddy's father left to go on an extended holiday leaving the office in the hands of his daughter and the office typist.

While it was a bit of a shock at first, Paddy and the typist coped admirably. Paddy did general legal work of all kinds, appearing in the Magistrates Court in criminal cases, preparing documents for the Supreme Court and conveyancing. "I took on all kinds of cases in the Magistrate's Court from assault to burglary. It was very friendly there and senior practitioners like Bill Gazley and George Kent were always ready to help me. The registrar at the Magistrate's Court was also helpful and told me I had done well after my first appearance. But he did say I should wear a hat in court!" 

West-Walker & West-Walker

On 1 April 1956 Paddy's father took her into partnership and the firm was called West-Walker & West-Walker.

Paddy married David Steele, an accountant and business man, in February 1966 and before long had two boys, just a year apart. She continued working with her father, taking the boys in a twin pram into the office and to the Magistrate's Court. 

"I used to take them out of the pram and sit them on the counter in both the Magistrate's and Supreme courts. It was open plan so the staff could see the boys, and the boys could see what was going on. It was unheard of then to do that sort of thing but the staff loved it. They smiled and chatted to the boys – it was great fun."

AJ West-Walker retired in 1977 and wanted Paddy to carry on the practice but she decided not to and the partnership was dissolved and the practice sold. 

"I decided to stay at home and be a housewife but after six weeks I was bored to tears and started looking at possibilities of what I could do. Luckily I had a call from the late Chris Pottinger at Buddle Anderson Kent & Co.

 

"I went down for an interview with Chris and also met Wayne Chapman for the first time. They offered me a fantastic job doing conveyancing only, from nine o'clock until noon, with all school holidays off. It was a wonderful offer, on a higher grade and I absolutely loved it. As the boys grew I gradually extended the hours until it was full-time.

"Buddle Anderson merged with Findlay Hoggard Richmond & Co in 1982 to become Buddle Findlay and the conveyancing department was housed separately in the Canterbury Building Society building which was by the cable car. Wayne Chapman was in charge and we all got to know each other very well – it was a very happy time."

Paddy and husband David, who was chairman of Rangatira Investments and a partner in Arthur Young, were travelling overseas more and more frequently by this time. 

"The late Kathy Stringfellow and the late Bridget Nichols would just take over my files while I was away and return them to me when I got back. They were wonderfully helpful to me. When they both left Buddle Findlay in 1987 I thought I would retire too.

 
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"I really thought I was finished then but relatives and friends started asking for help with estates, so I started working from my home office. I worked as a sole practitioner for more than 15 years."

In March 2005 Paddy had held a practising certificate for 50 years and she was feted with a special Law Society morning tea. She was also honoured at the dinner held in July 2010 to celebrate practitioners in practice for 50 or more years.

Paddy Steele was made an honorary member of the New Zealand Law Society on 11 September 2009.

This article was first published in Council Brief, the monthly newspaper of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

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Last updated on the 10th December 2015