The city of New Plymouth has a population of around 57,000, while the wider New Plymouth district has a population of about 74,000.
Garry Anderson moved from Wellington to New Plymouth in 2004, giving up his role as a principal at Chapman Tripp in Wellington, where he was doing a lot of structured finance work. He says the move to New Plymouth, where he is a partner at Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen, has enabled him to continue to do quality corporate work, but in an environment where he could also enjoy more downtime.
“I’m not going to say the quality of all the work is exactly the same, but there is still good quality, challenging work, for good, interesting and reasonable clients. I was not coming here to fill in forms and do house conveyancing.”
He said while it wasn’t unusual to be in the office until midnight in Wellington, that’s not the case in New Plymouth. “Up here, that level of commitment is just not required anywhere near as often. You’re still working hard, but it’s not at that level. You absolutely have a life outside of work.”
Lawyers need to tap into more than just their book smarts when operating outside the major cities, says Mr Anderson. “It’s the soft skills, the empathy, the emotional intelligence aspect, that are really important for people when they have a holistic, whole-of-life relationship with their clients. It’s not just transactional based, it’s people you will then see on the street, your kids might be friends at school, they’re not just people who come in, you do a transaction and you never see them again. It’s an intimate environment.”
A changing city
Linda Wilkinson, a director at Billings, moved to New Plymouth 34 years ago and says the city has changed hugely over the years. “When I first came here in the early 1980s, I think it was still quite parochial. Now I think it’s a fabulous place to live. There is just so much on offer.”
She says there is plenty of interesting work on offer. “We have a lot of dairy and oil and gas, and if one industry isn’t doing well then the other usually is.”
The entrepreneurial spirit of the region also leads to interesting work, Ms Wilkinson says. “It’s that whole number eight wire mentality. There are a lot of young businesses that are doing really exciting and innovative things.”
Why aren’t more lawyers moving to town?
“I’m surprised there are not more people trying to escape from Auckland or Wellington,” says Mr Anderson.
He says concerns about not earning as much in a regional city as in a major city might hold some people back. “I think it’s about resetting what’s satisfying. You don’t need to earn as much in a smaller centre. If you reset those expectations then a whole lot of things open up for you, otherwise you do get trapped in the bigger cities, going ‘well I still need to earn all this money so I can buy a house that costs millions and is the size of a box’. It’s getting people to reset what they want and how to get it.”
When Mr Anderson made the move, he and his wife sat down and talked about how they wanted to be living in five years’ time. “That’s how we ended up here. We had a five-year plan and this was consistent with that. If the best thing you want in your five-year plan is to continue doing what you’re doing now, then that’s fine. But if you’re wanting a different quality of life and in many respects, not all respects, still quality and challenging work that doesn’t involve you still being in the office at midnight every night of the week, this option can be good – and not just New Plymouth, there are many smaller cities in New Zealand where you can do this.”
Linda Wilkinson believes one of the reasons it’s hard to attract lawyers to town, is that they aren’t familiar with New Plymouth. “Taranaki is more of a destination, you don’t pass through it on your way from Auckland to Wellington, you have to detour. I know that when people do come here, they say they had no idea it was this good. It’s about getting them to come here and have a really good look.”
Nicholsons Lawyers are currently looking to recruit, and partner Nik Marinovich says the firm “hasn’t been inundated with CVs”. While getting graduate lawyers is relatively easy, he says it gets more difficult when it comes to intermediate and senior lawyers.
However, he says there are plenty of good career opportunities for lawyers in New Plymouth. “There are a lot of opportunities for lawyers here, not just at our firm, but if you look around at other firms in the area you see there’s quite an aging population base in some of the partnerships.”
Mr Marinovich grew up in New Plymouth and believes locals moving back home after studying or working elsewhere have something of an advantage when it comes to establishing themselves. “People do like the fact you’re from here. If your family is well known it helps. I’ve found later in my career that being from here has helped quite a lot. You find a lot of people you went to school with, or they knew your family, end up living here as well.”
With Mt Taranaki, Egmont National Park, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth and the wider Taranaki region have plenty of attractions for visitors. So much so, that the travel bible Lonely Planet ranked Taranaki second in a list of the world’s top regions to visit in 2017. “There is lots happening all the time. You’ve got that combination of a world-class arts scene, a great café scene, an exciting and diverse festival programme and then you’ve got a tremendous outdoor feast – the Pouakai Crossing, which is the route around the cone of Mt Taranaki, you’ve got the Surf Highway, lovely beaches. I think we are truly blessed,” says Linda Wilkinson.
House prices on the rise
Average house values in the New Plymouth district rose 6.8% to $429,953 in the year to October, according to data from Quotable Value.