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James Denham Shale, 1940 - 2016

By Nick Butcher

Auckland based commercial lawyer James Denham Shale - who was simply known as “Denham” - died on 24 October 2016, having practised law for nearly 50 years.

Denham Shale was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1967, and legend has it that on that day he also became a partner in a law firm, something that would be unlikely to occur these days.

Ian Haynes, who has also been practising for about as long as Denham, says it’s quite remarkable even though back in those days becoming a partner did come with far less pressures than in this generation.

photo of Denham Shale

“I became one after about 2 months but I still think this shows he was a great lawyer from day one. On his very first day he was partner, unheard of really these days, but back then if you received a letter about a legal matter and you responded within 7 days, that was perfectly acceptable whereas now with email a response is almost expected within minutes,” he laughs.

Denham Shale was Auckland born and bred. He attended Sacred Heart College and gained his LLB at the University of Auckland in 1966.

He was still practising law up until just before he died - from his hospital bed: something people that knew Denham say was typical of his work ethic.

Kensington Swan partner Tim MacAvoy and Consultant Ian Haynes say Denham could be described as a quiet achiever during his long career, but with a wicked sense of humour.

“He wasn’t a mover and shaker type of person. He was very relaxed, played things close to his chest but also had a firm streak in him.

"An iron fist inside a velvet glove,” says Ian Haynes with a smile.

Denham Shale joined law firm Kensington Swan soon after it was established in 1986. He had come as a sole practitioner from the firm Shale and Burns. His sole practice law firm listed 19 areas of specialty, an indication of the enthusiasm that Mr Shale approached the law with. He also never fell shy of consulting fellow lawyers for advice when he needed outside assistance.

Tim MacAvoy remembers Denham as always doing his homework. He was both thorough, investigative and challenged conventional ideas.

“Bret Gustafson who was a partner in the firm and David Chisholm QC too at the time, well Brett told me Denham phoned him asking about a legal situation which Bret said the answer was X. Denham said, are you sure it’s not Y. And Bret said no, no, no, the answer is X, and Denham said great because that is exactly what David Chisholm told me.”

“It’s the mark of a good lawyer," says Ian Haynes. "You’re much more likely to come to a sensible rounded conclusion than if you just try and untangle something yourself.”

Mr Shale was a highly respected lawyer and also an experienced company director. Some of his career high points include roles such as the former President of the Institute of Directors and over the years he was also a director at Les Mills, Wrightson, Zespri, Power New Zealand, Owens Group, South Canterbury Finance and Turners Group. He also chaired Kensington Swan at the time of its merger with KPMG Legal in 2000, but left at the time of the merger to once again become a sole practitioner. The firm operated under the name KPMG Legal until 2003 when it retook its former name.

“Denham played a major part in negotiating the merger but then stood down immediately after it went through because he had various directorships that didn’t fit well with KPMG and him being a partner with KPMG Legal,” Ian Haynes says.

Ian Haynes remembers Denham as innovative both professionally and also with his interests such as golf.

“At one point, he built a putting green at his home. He had a social function there which included the president of New Zealand Golf. It was very rough and ready and I don’t know how long it survived, it was a very pleasant occasion and probably more social than serious,” he says.  

Mr Shale was fond of his getaway bach at the rugged West Coast’s Piha beach about 40 kilometres from both the bright and dim lights of Auckland city.

It was out there that he could just be Denham, as entertainment lawyer Chris Hocquard recalls.

“He came onto the board of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club at about the same time I did in around 2008. There were three of us who joined and Denham was pulled in because he had a reputation for getting things done. They’d created a new constitution and a new board and none of us had any surf lifesaving experience. Denham brought a discipline to the organisation. He would sit at board meetings and sometimes nod off because board meetings can be quite boring. He was a big man and he saw it as his job to bring some structure to the decision making and that the club had a strategy. He was a very funny guy too. Every now and again he would get a little annoyed with the lack of discipline at the club and he’d write a fax and send it to the club or it would be a handwritten letter mailed, never an email. He was old school and he wanted his advice to be in writing,” he says.

Mr Hocquard says Denham was a stickler for being on time to all meetings and that sense of clockwise filtered into most aspects of his life.

“Even in summer out at Piha. He would turn up at the Piha store to get his coffee and newspaper at exactly the same time – 9:30am. He was a creature of habit in many ways so if you needed to speak with Denham, you could be sure that he would be there right on time every summer morning,” he says.  

Property lawyer Peter Nolan worked with Denham many years ago and describes him as a mentor. He agrees on the matter of punctuality.

“If Denham said he would meet you at 8 o’clock, he would be there right on time, no later, no earlier,” he says.

The men acted as attorneys for each other.

“I worked with him at Kensington Swan and then when I left to become a sole practitioner, Denham was the first person I went to talk to it about how to do that. He was that sort of guy, he was senior and always the person to see if you needed wise advice. By coincidence the office I found for myself was located in the same building that he was also practising in. So I kept that connection. I was his attorney and he was mine, so if he needed a conveyancing settlement done he would come to me and vice versa,” he says.

Mr Nolan says Denham had a strong personality and was not someone to cross.

“But equally he was incredibly friendly; but sometimes he could get this stare on him and you knew that he wasn’t at all impressed by what was being said or the view on a legal issue. But he was fun, great company, enjoyed holding up the bar at night. He was one of those guys who just made friends easy yet gained a lot of people's respect whether they agreed with him on issues or not,” he says.

Peter Nolan says Denham Shale was equally comfortable in both worlds as a sole practitioner or as a partner of a large law firm with over 40 lawyers on the pay roll.

Australian and Canadian owned mining firm OceanGold Corporation also had a strong association with Denham.

He was the lead non-executive director of the company’s board.

“He wasn’t your bog standard director, that’s for sure,” says Chairman Jim Askew.

Mr Askew got to know Mr Shale over the past decade when two mining companies OceanaGold and Climax Mining merged.

“So I became Chairman and Denham became lead director and we worked closely. He was active across everything we did and a great mentor to our younger staff members particularly in the legal area."

Mr Askew who has worked on about 30 boards during his career describes Denham as an archetypal gentleman and one of the most consummate company directors he has ever had the good fortune to work with, who was a constant strength to all who had the privilege to serve with him.

“I’ve seen an interesting cross section of people over the years and Denham was one of the guys that you just knew would be there even in the tough times. Whatever it was, be it legal or governance areas, he would have his arms around it. He just paid attention in his own quiet way to what was going on and was able to guide us through the turbulent times,” he says.

Mr Askew says Denham was a guiding light for the company business activities in New Zealand.

Denham Shale inspired many young lawyers such as Cliff Lyon who paid tribute on the online condolences page. He said Denham was his first boss in law, describing him as among the very best commercial lawyers, always available to give a friendly word of advice or assistance with a ready laugh.

Denham who was 76 years old, is survived by his wife Gill, three children Carla, Paul and Veronica along with his three grandchildren.

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Last updated on the 3rd November 2016