New Zealand Law Society - Engineer ditched business and took up law, as a hobby

Engineer ditched business and took up law, as a hobby

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Richard Keam
Richard Keam

With a PhD in electrical engineering and now embarked on a physics degree, Auckland crime barrister Richard Keam sees his various careers as hobbies.

Holding a Bachelors degree and a PhD in electrical engineering, Richard owned his own engineering company for several years “but when I turned 40 I decided I had had enough of that and had an opportunity to sell out of my engineering company so I decided to go to law school”.

“I have been practising law now for seven years and in some ways I still feel new to it.”

Richard Bernard (Richard) Keam
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Auckland University in 2011. Admitted in 2012. Richard also holds a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering and PhD in Electrical Engineering.
Barrister sole in Chancery Chambers, Auckland.
Speciality area
Criminal defence.

He opened his own independent practice in the Auckland District Law Society’s Chancery Chambers on May 1, after three years in Roger Chambers’ Vulcan Chambers and three years previously with the Public Defence Service in Auckland.

“They are a great bunch at Vulcan Chambers. Roger is retiring so there is a bit of a transition and I took the opportunity to become more independent.”

Richard is married to Kay, a property partner at Martelli McKegg. “Kay has always been a lawyer, and part of the reason I decided to do law is that I was sick of being told for years what’s what by a lawyer – they think they know everything.”

“So I thought, if can’t beat them, join them. Kay was very encouraging of me and supported my change to law.”

Richard’s 14-year-old daughter Sarah attends Epsom Girls’ Grammar School and 20-year-old son Robert, who wants to be an academic, is studying Latin at Auckland University.

“I support education for its own sake. I am currently chipping away at a BSc in physics as a background hobby myself so for me it’s just go and do it.

“I’m one of these people who very much treats every aspect of my life as a hobby. Being a criminal lawyer is a hobby that happens to pay money.”

Law and technology

An only child and with no other lawyers in the family apart from his wife, Richard’s late father was in the clothing business and his mother, who lives on the Gold Coast, was “a hard-hitting real estate agent in Sydney for many years”.

“I think of myself as having a strong business background which I used in my engineering business.

“Because of my PhD and liking maths, the one thing I miss in the law is there’s very little call for integral Calculus.”

Richard’s engineering background is useful on the ADLS technology in the law committee, which he has served on for a couple of years.

“I thought it was something I could contribute to from my background and I am very interested in that committee. Technology is more and more changing everybody’s lives, particularly lawyers.

“I’m doing one Stage 2 Physics paper just to keep my hand in, which is slow. It is counting towards a BSc which will take about eight years to finish – for a giggle.

“My big hobbies are on water. I grew up on yachts and I love them. We have a family yacht – a Bavaria 44-ft single masted sloop. We can comfortably go away on it as a family and usually spend two weeks at Christmas sailing around and scuba diving.

“I’ve never been involved in organised team sports - I’m too much of a loner for that. In summer it’s scuba diving and yachting and winter it’s skiing. I’m passionate about skiing. I mainly ski Ruapehu because it’s handy, and Whakapapa and Turoa.

“I do it in a pretty leisurely way. I usually book into the Chateau Tongariro and wander up and muck about on Whakapapa. The kids like it more when we get a place in Ohakune because it’s more of a social town. They find the Chateau like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. And I have skied the South Island.”


Richard is involved in politics … but isn’t political.

“I have been a paid up member of the National Party for 30 years and occasionally collect for them, knock on doors and so on. But I’m not terribly political.

“I try not to get involved in things because it tends to detract from me mucking around and having fun. Often the people who end up on community committees are not really my cup of tea.

“When it’s too rainy to go boating and there’s no snow, I play the piano, guitar or saxophone.

“Both kids are very musical and we often jam together. There are two pianos at home and someone is playing very much the whole time. I never spend less than 20 minutes a day mucking around on a piano.

“In my new office I got bored because I don’t have any furniture so raced out to Lewis Eady and bought myself an electric acoustic Alvarez guitar.

“I like playing the electric guitar but I thought in this office other people may object. At this stage in my life I like playing jazz. I have gone through lots of phases. I played in a rock band as a kid, I like classical music, jazz and musicals. I’m a sucker for any kind of musical.

“The style of music isn’t that important if you really like music because once you see the sheet music you can play it in any style, heavy metal or country ballad. At the moment I find jazz more interesting and I’m going through a strong Miles Davis phase. I like saxophonist Charlie Parker but he’s getting a little bit dated.”

In a household of academics with books strewn everywhere, there’s a lot of reading in Richard’s house.

“I divide myself into fiction and non-fiction depending on what room I am in. I’m reading a lot of physics right now because I’m studying. I’m trying to get my head around the climate change debate so I’m reading a fair bit on that.

“When I go to bed and want to go to sleep it has to be fiction because it has to switch my brain off. I like science fiction and Tolkien, and have just read Ben Elton’s new book Identity Crisis. I like him. When he was younger he was quite a leftie. Now he’s having a crack at a lot of identity politics, which I quite enjoy.

“I like films and often go to films during the day if there’s nothing on. I saw Red Joan with Judi Dench recently. I like those period movies but I also snuck out and saw the recent Avengers movie.

“When I used to come home from school the telly would go on. Moving wallpaper. I’m a bit like that now and just put the telly on because it’s there.

“One of our household traditions is around tea time to watch the news, Seven Sharp and Shortland Street and then everyone disperses. I make them watch Shortland Street because it’s nice to see New Zealanders in a drama.”

Cats and turtles

“We have three and a half cats. The half because it basically goes where it wants. We have cats because they are much easier to manage than dogs and we can go away. They are affectionate SPCA moggies and watch telly with us.

“One is Sparkle Bell – that’s why you probably don’t let your four-year-old daughter name your cat – Jasper is the only boy, Gizmo his sister and Scratchy is the one that comes and goes.

“And we have two turtles. About five years ago Sarah said she wanted turtles for her birthday and within about 10 minutes of us owning turtles she lost interest in them.

“Kay feeds them and I clean their tank. They are more interesting than fish. These guys are about five years old and in a couple of years we can put them outside in a pen, so the quality of my life will improve significantly.

“I drive a 2006 Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4. And also drive a Suzuki 650 motor bike which is what I mainly commute on. I like it.

“I have never been one of these people who needs to get their prestige from their car. There’s no point in me buying a flash car because within six months it looks like it’s been in a Mad Max movie. The Pajero is handy for skiing and outboard motors.”

In court every day

Richard’s attraction to law came as his engineering business was coming to a close.

“I got involved in some litigation. I thought ‘this is fun’ and decided to have a crack at it. I ended up doing civil litigation but I wanted to get away from things like IP law. I found very early on in my career that civil litigation was really boring.

“My good mate Justin Harder had just started at the Public Defence Service doing criminal law and I was driving him to work every morning. I was moaning about my boring job and he said ‘why not come and do this’.

“I never thought about criminal law before that. I found it to be really fun and I’m in court every day.

“I don’t know about any other career. My daughter is interested in medicine and I sometimes wonder if I could have gone down that path. I sort of blundered into engineering by accident and now I have stumbled into criminal law by accident.

“Summer is on the boat and every year we like to go overseas. One year is a small trip, the next year a big trip. This year is the big trip so we are going to spend three weeks in Greece and eastern Europe in July.

“I did a fair bit of travelling through my engineering business and travelled a lot with my father when I was younger. I have never lived anywhere other than New Zealand, which is the place I would live in any day.

“My dinner guests would be Julius Caesar and Robert Muldoon. I would enjoy Muldoon. He is often mis-characterised in public now, and history has not been terribly kind to the guy.

“The meal would be spicy, savoury and hot. Indian or south east Asian. No sweet or cakes. And I like a good drink from time to time. By choice I don’t drink wine, I don’t like the stuff. I’m a Scottish whisky drinker - Johnny Walker Red.”

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