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Leo James Steel 1929-2020

02 June 2020

Leo Steel, who died recently at the age of 91, was admitted in 1953 and continued to work right up to his death.

“He loved working, and for him it was always about service to people, it wasn’t about money, he was entirely people-focused,” says his son Greg Steel, a partner in the family firm Steel & Co, as is his brother Andy.

Leo, who spent his entire career in Christchurch, worked initially in conveyancing but more latterly focused on wills, estates and elderly law.

Leo Steel

“Resthomes and licenses to occupy were a passion of his ever since they first started many years ago, and how they weren’t always structured in the residents’ favour. The 2011 earthquakes here bore some of that out, with people losing out on insurance payments and the like,” says Greg.

“It was a passion of his because he didn’t like to see people taken advantage of just because they are vulnerable, and people who go into resthome care often are.”

Leo Steel voluntarily gave many talks to community groups regarding the retirement village industry and was considered an expert by the select committee when making submissions to it on what was to become the Retirement Villages Act 2003. His contributions were recognised when he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for public services in 2006.

One recent case he was involved in was Cashmere Capital Ltd case that went to the Supreme Court in 2009. Leo was the solicitor for some of the residents.  “He fought for the protection of the residents – the retirement village owner had absconded leaving a battle between the mortgagee’s rights versus the rights of the residents,” says Greg.

Baker’s son

Leo was the first in his family to go into law, but two of his sons are lawyers, while a third, Dave, is the family firm’s trust accountant. Two of his grandchildren are currently studying law.

Greg says his father didn’t come from a well-to-do-family – both his parents were bakers, one of his brothers was also a baker, one was a shop owner, while another was a doctor .

Leo was born in Gore but moved to Christchurch after leaving secondary school. While he was admitted in 1953, as often was the case at the time, he initially worked in a law firm in the city while studying in the evening.

He established a firm with Maurice Simes and Bert Jacobsen called Simes, Jacobsen & Steel in 1953. Retirements resulted in two different partners coming in and a change in name to Simes Jacobsen when Greg joined in 1989. Eventually it became Steel & Co.

Dedicated to education

Leo Steel was involved in education with the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a religious group dedicated to educating children. He attended the Christian Brothers’ school of St Kevin’s College in Oamaru and assisted the Christian Brothers when St Thomas of Canterbury College was established in Christchurch in 1961.

“There were three things he always told us: ‘always play down the middle of the pitch’, ‘never get into bed with a client over a deal’ and ‘all you’ve got to trade on is your name and once your name is gone you may as well leave the profession’.

“He wouldn’t purposely create arguments for the sake of it or set one person off against the other. He would always look for a common solution that would suit everyone, and that might be why none of us have gone into the courts side of practice, other than civil litigation,” says Greg.

“The advice about the name is especially important because once you’ve lost your name within the profession or in the community there is a massive impact on your practice.

“He didn’t mind seeing anyone at their home. If someone couldn’t come to the office he would always go and see them; it was always about getting things done for the client.”

‘Lovely gentle fellow’

Nigel Hampton QC describes Leo Steel as a “lovely, gentle fellow and a very generous man”.

“When we first met in the early 1960s, I was a law student and at the same time a law clerk for a Christchurch law firm; Leo was a practising partner in a neighbouring law firm, to whence it was convenient to go to have affidavits independently sworn,” Mr Hampton says.

“In the mid-1970s Leo, a long-time and accomplished long-distance runner, persuaded me into running laps of Hagley Park during lunchtimes, starting and finishing from the YMCA, and later cajoled me into training for, and taking a part in, competitive harriers.

“For those two years, before I turned back to rugby, I was far the fitter for the running - in body and in mind - thanks to Leo.”

As well as Greg, Andy and Dave who are all involved in the legal profession, Leo leaves two daughters, Julie and Kath, and 13 grandchildren.  He was married to June who passed away in 1988 and then to Val who passed away in 2014.

Last updated on the 2nd June 2020