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Ten Questions: Duncan Webb

12 May 2016

Duncan Webb is a partner at law firm, Lane Neave in Christchurch.

He is a former professor and judicial officer. He litigates in complex areas including professional negligence and responsibility, and insurance. He is recognised as New Zealand's leading expert in lawyer's ethics and professional responsibility.

Why did you choose law as a career?
I think it was more that the law chose me.  I always had wide ranging academic interests but only the law seemed to bring together both a rational analytical approach, and at the same time require some of those skills that more typify the humanities, like an understanding of human nature. Philosophy came a close second, but it didn't seem quite as exciting.

Photo of Duncan Webb
Photo supplied

As a student I didn't think of myself as a protester or activist (and I recall I didn't go on any Springbok tour marches) but I think over time I have become more aware of the need for lawyers to be involved in these things and I have found myself helping in a number of cases and causes, some unpopular, which had a public interest element.

Do you still feel that way?
Sure. The law is a real challenge. I like to think that the work I do in litigation has especial challenges in dealing with evidence, along with the uncertainty of human behaviour and the sometimes arcane law.  It is undoubtedly a tough job, but the challenge also leads to considerable rewards.

I have done a number of things in the law including being an academic and a tribunal officer.  While I am currently a partner at Lane Neave I am still looking for new challenges – most recently I am considering politics and am hoping to run as the Labour candidate in Christchurch Central in 2017. While this might seem like a big change I see it as a natural step from academic, to practitioner, to (hopefully) policy maker and law maker. The transition will be a big change and I am looking forward to campaigning and doing something entirely different up to the election. However I am hopeful that I will still be able to play a part in the legal profession and legal system more widely.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying law?
Do it. Law is not for everyone, but there is only one way to find out – and some time thinking about the law is never wasted.  Law school can be a pretty brutal place so it is important to go there with your eyes open and not get too caught up in the competitiveness and grade obsession that sometimes manifests itself.  While a good degree obviously makes getting a job a lot easier, some of the most admirable students I ever taught graduated with modest degrees, but against some pretty adverse personal circumstances.

What is the one thing that has given you the most satisfaction in your career?
I have been really lucky to have had many things that have been really satisfying – perhaps because I have been in the law one way or another a long time.  One occasion which had a touching personal element for me was when I acted for a community group in a case concerning EQC's liability for flooding vulnerability of earthquake damaged land and many of the homeowners came to the hearing over a number of days to support the work we were doing.  The outcome certainly did not go all their way, but they were very grateful for the work that we had done for them.  That was satisfying not only because of the very personal nature of it, but also because it gave me the sense that the work that I was doing had a real and positive affect on the lives of many ordinary people.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a lawyer?
I had some input into the drafting of the Rules of Conduct and Client Care prior to 2008 (and prior to being a full time legal practitioner).  That was an enormous challenge both intellectually, and also in understanding the diverse ways in which lawyers act across different practice areas and in different localities. The opportunity to draft processional rules from a blank piece of paper was extraordinary and almost unheard of internationally.  Looking back there are some things that could be improved and every so often I find myself cursing the drafter of one rule or another.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing New Zealand lawyers?
There is a danger of losing perspective in legal practice and becoming lost in the day to day tasks and demands.  If that happens the practice of law becomes banal and perhaps a little depressing.  The biggest challenge for lawyers in New Zealand is for us to remember the important and privileged role that we occupy without becoming arrogant. The professional of lawyering is a really meaningful job – a challenging role which affects the lives of our clients and others very deeply no matter what area of law we practice in.  I think if we remember that we can be better lawyers and also be happier in our jobs as well.

What do you enjoy doing outside lawyering?
I enjoy the outdoors when I can, especially remoteness which is one reason Christchurch is a great place to live.  I try to get out on the hills mountain biking when I can. Tramping is also a passion, and skiing in winter.  Those pursuits are a great respite from the noise of legal practice.

What music do you listen to?
All of it.  I haven't been converted to Spotify yet because I love my iPod so much.  It has almost 6000 tracks on it which range from some excellent organ music (which has to be played at full volume on a really good system) to a fair bit of modern stuff.  My tastes were formed in the 80's so there is a fair bit from then.  My wife recently bought a Justin Bieber CD – something to which even my musical tastes do not stretch.

What are you reading at the moment?
Leonard Cohen's biography.  It appears that being a poet / rock star / icon isn't that much fun.

The best movie and TV shows I've seen?
I saw Sherpa recently – an insightful documentary on what really goes on in Everest expeditions.

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Last updated on the 12th May 2016