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Gordon Sydney Swan, 1927 - 2020

21 May 2020 - By Richard Austin

The recent death of Gordon Swan in Whanganui, at 93, marked the passing of a special era of legal practice in New Zealand, particularly provincial general practice.

Gordon joined his late grandfather’s firm, Treadwell Gordon, in 1951. His maternal grandfather, George Gordon, was a founder of our firm. George Gordon had, with WG Treadwell, established a significant commercial and rural practice in Whanganui which was, at that time, a leading commercial centre within New Zealand. And, indeed, it remained so when Gordon joined the firm. Gordon’s paternal lineage also had strong legal roots, his great-uncle Sir Kenneth Swan being a knighted patent lawyer in the United Kingdom.

Gordon was never conferred with a university law degree, although he did attend Victoria University (including, of note, Weir House) but opted to complete his qualifications in clerkship, believed to have been with the (unrelated) firm of Treadwells in Wellington. With the benefit of university lectures, night class, and the law firm’s “sign off” on mentoring, he was licenced to practice. It is possible, therefore, that Gordon was the last lawyer in New Zealand to practice without a law degree.

It might explain, perhaps, why has former colleague, Bill Clayton, enjoyed banter with Gordon, whom he addressed as the “petty conveyancer”. It might explain also why Gordon claimed was unable to move the admission of his daughter, Jeannie Warnock, as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court in 1982.

Perhaps it was his clerkship training in the practical aspects of the law, rather than the academic purity of it, that Gordon was so practical and effective in his legal dealings. It might explain also that the sense of fun and camaraderie, honed at Weir House, which endeared him so well to his colleagues and clients.

Gordon was efficient, accurate and concise. We never saw a long letter. We never had a long debate. He was straight to the point, with resolution and reason. He would sense outcomes, even before problems arose. He would engage when needed. He would retreat when sensible.

He was neither pompous nor pretentious. Such traits in other practitioners would attract his mirth, perhaps even derision. He was humble, yet compellingly authoritative.

He was courteous, yet frank. Greetings were warm, professional conversations were brisk.

It seems perverse, even now, to reflect on this gentleman, addressed as “Mr Swan” by most in the office, and who answered the phone with the singular “Swan”, to have two “objet d’art” on his, otherwise, tidy desk: an aerosol can labelled “Bullshit Repellent” and a statuette of a curmudgeonly leprechaun on a plinth embossed “Sue the Bastards”.

The respect his demeanour engendered can be no better exemplified by the fact that in his 50 years of active practice, he only ever had two personal secretaries, Kathleen Glenn and Heather Jarrett.

Widely regarded in both the City and provincial firms, it was inevitable he took instructions from across the county when matters arose in Wanganui. I wondered how his influence spread so wide. He seemed on first name terms with many of New Zealand’s legal, business and commercial knights, including Robin, Lord Cooke although that may have been because he was at school with him… but not, Gordon would say, the same scholastic class. Perhaps he was so well known because of his frequent attendance at the Devil’s Own in Palmerston North each September. His comradery with the likes of Jack Bennett, (Big) Jim Fisher and Jim Clancy would always be concerning. Perhaps it was because, when serving as District Law Society president, his home was always opened to dine with the visiting Judges.

Those connections engendered through direct personal contact, and based on trust, undertakings and integrity, and not in some form of prescriptive electronic evidence of record, were features of an age now, regrettably, passed.

It is hard to believe that he retired from partnership over 35 years ago, the day I joined the partnership table. Since that time he had remained an active consultant to the firm. He attended the office regularly, at least until a small stroke about five years ago had a disproportionate effect on his, previously acute, recollective abilities.

He would say that it was the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax Act in 1986 that was the moment in time where he reflected that the practice of law was more burdensome than compelling, and perhaps he should do less. He would tell us that, until then and over his 50 years of practice, he only needed to know five Acts of Parliament: the Land Transfer Act, the Property Law Act, the Transport Act, the Matrimonial Proceedings Act and the Local Government Act (the last of course because he was the long-standing City solicitor for the Wanganui City Council).

His clientele was extensive, particularly in rural practice. There are numerous gems of guidance he passed on to us. Small gems, such as farming brothers dividing up their land well before the clashes began. Big gems, such as one can’t act for everyone, even when the competition is light. Useful gems, such as stock agents will always value better for the buyer, as they want the new client.

His commercial law skills were founded in acting for many leading New Zealand companies that had their historical base in Wanganui (without the ‘h’ then). These included national shipping and insurance companies, stock and station companies, and even national abattoir entities. Such insight into heavier commerce allowed him to develop his own personal commercial investment skills.

His particular personal commercials interests were agricultural and, at the time of his death, he had extensive farming holdings. In his time he had been an extensive property developer, had owned hotel developments, and had been part of establishing a successful seafood business, as well as a regional airline.

He was philanthropically active, and served on many civic and charitable organisations. His love of rugby and cricket was legend.

Worthy advice from him included that, whilst the practice of law may provide a relatively comfortable lifestyle (absent the stress), one would never be commercially successful from it. When asking once how was he was so successful, his response was that it simply about the strike rate. He said he wasn’t that perfect. The trick, he said, was in making sure that when you got one right, make it a good one.

And yet, in all this, he was a very private man. His family time was very precious and he knew his law practice had intruded into that time throughout his years in practice. His liHisove for his late wife Kathryn (nee Hatrick) and his three daughters, Rosemary Spencer, Jeannie Warnock and Philippa Twomey, as well as the seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren, was his reason for being.

It was notable that Gordon was alive and able to see his old firm reach the milestone of 150 years last year.

He will remain a legend of the Firm.

Richard Austin is a Partner at Treadwell Gordon.

Last updated on the 21st May 2020