New Zealand Law Society - How a nominal Anglican took first steps to a happy legal life

How a nominal Anglican took first steps to a happy legal life

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Russell Checketts outside
Russell Checketts

Being an “absolute shit idiot” at law school and too busy enjoying himself than studying, Invercargill-born Russell Checketts fitted lectures in between towing heavy air compressors round Dunedin with an old International truck.

“A mate of mine owned Dunedin Hire Service and he could see I was hopeless, so he gave me a job driving his delivery truck - a good old International A110, straight-6 motor and drum brakes. I used to tow 2-3 ton air compressors all round Dunedin to various jobs, which was extremely exciting coming down High Street,” says Russell, now a consultant to his Alexandra-based firm Checketts McKay.

“It was good because I had a purpose. He told me if I had a lecture to take the truck, piss off and do the job when I was finished. It worked out really good. I got sufficiently well organised to get my law degree. I thought I better get my act together if I was going to get something out of law.

Russell Douglas (Russell) Checketts
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Otago University in 1974.Admitted in 1974. 
Solicitor and Consultant at Checketts McKay, Alexandra. 
Speciality area
Crime and general practice.

Going for his first job, at Downie Stewart in Dunedin, Russell tells how the world used to work “in the old days.”

“I got the Downie Stewart connection through my uncle, Wing Commander Johnny Checketts, who was a fighter ace in World War II, and his mate was Bill Reid, who was the senior partner.

“It was a very formal interview and a close run thing between Mike Toomey, who is now a Partner at Young Hunter in Christchurch, and myself. Mike had one major disability - he was a Doolan.

“Downie Stewart worked for the Otago Foundation Trust Board, a bastion of right-wing Presbyterianism. So the final question was ‘what religion are you?’ and I said ‘nominally Anglican’ and they said ‘that’ll do’, and I got the job.”

Plastic factory wins over the courthouse

But Russell didn’t hang about and was soon on the move overseas with his British wife Jean in 1975. A physiotherapist, Jean supported Russell through university and retired a couple of years ago.

“I was not really interested in trying to get a job as a lawyer over there, it wasn’t part of my career aspirations. I worked in plastics factories and milk treatment stations. The people I was working with couldn’t believe I was a lawyer. And I bought the Daily Telegraph, which was not quite tits and bums. They struggled with that in the smoko room.”

Russell and Jean drove back overland in a little Ford Transit campervan – which they still have – across Europe, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You name it we went there. Down the Kyhber Pass I was offered a spare tyre full of heroin, which I declined. We shipped the van out of Madras on a boat to Malaysia, survived a crash in Penang and then on to Fremantle, by which time we were destitute.

“My sister sent me some money, we drove across Australia and shipped the van home, where I got a job with Colin Withnall in Dunedin and lived happily ever after.”

Since then the couple have made three separate trips with each of their three children to Europe. While the old Transit is now a restoration project, they have a new British campervan on the water due to arrive soon.

“Working for Withnall was a laugh and a half because he had taken over Sievwright James Nichol and Stark, which was his first wife’s dad’s firm. They had a nominee company like you wouldn’t believe.

“In those days there was none of this banks lending money, it was all State Advances. The firm had this untapped goldmine. I got my mitts on it and started ringing up all the land agents and suddenly we were probably one of the busier conveyancing firms in Dunedin.”

Russell’s Dad died while he was overseas and his Mum had moved to Roxburgh, “so to be nearer to her I weasled my way into a job in Alexandra and have been there ever since.”

‘Falling in love’ over expensive champagne

Russell Checketts in the office
Russell Checketts in the office

Inter-firm rivalry was strong in Alexandra at the time, with loads of “shitty letters demanding instant response” not uncommon.

Matters came to a head when a rival lawyer complained about Russell to the then Otago District Law Society.

“Otago president Hugh Tohill – who was very upright and civil – wanted an end to it so a meeting was set up at Olivers Restaurant in Clyde to settle the range war between practitioners.

“We all got terribly pissed. Cliff Brunton was spraying $180 a bottle champagne around the spa pool, which was not only full of fat drunken men, but beautiful, willowy young ladies who had just started in the profession.

“It was a great night, we all fell in love with each other and lived happily ever after. Apart from the [Otago District] Law Society, who said the bill was $1800. This was about 1981 or ‘82 so it was a reasonable amount from Law Society coffers, but I think they thought it was money well spent.

“Over the years we expanded our tentacles, opening an office in Wanaka the day after the arse fell out of share market. We had a clean sack full of $200 worth of fish and chips for all the people there and had a wonderful evening. Then the arse fell out of Wanaka and everywhere else and we starved, scrimped and saved till things came right again.”

The first lawyer in his family, Russell, at 12-13 years old, wanted to follow in his engineer father’s footsteps. “I remember him saying ‘no son of mine will work with his hands if he can work with his head’. But I like working with my hands and still piss around in my shed welding things up.”

Russell’s oldest daughter Rachel is a school teacher at Alexandra’s Dunstan High, where she was head girl, second daughter Rebecca, also a former Dunstan head girl, is a lawyer in the firm’s Wanaka branch and son David is a refrigeration engineer in Canada.

Being a judge not for this lawyer

Russell says he is not interested in becoming a member of the judiciary.

“I was on the Law Society as a pushy, unelected member for years just to try to get a bit of justice for us punters, because Dunedin ruled the roost in those days and country practitioners were a bunch of scum.

“They would pay 30 grand for books that we in the backblocks couldn’t read. It’s different now, of course.

“But you see so many people who have a little career path. Get a job, become a partner, do your five or six years on the Law Society, get on a few do-gooding things, do your CV, do your application, get appointed a judge ... and then retire on three pensions.

“I’m pleased I haven’t been tapped to be a judge. I don’t know if there is a better system, there may not be.

He says he likes being a GP, and stopped doing family law after some legal disagreements.

“I still do quite a bit of criminal and have a general eclectic country practice with farm and house conveyancing, leases and all that stuff.”

While not sporty, Russell likes to get out and about.

“I’m a follower of sport, but too lazy to play. I am thankful because I haven’t needed hip or knee replacements. I do a lot of walking and exercise and camping. I don’t sit on my arse all day. We live on 30 acres at Fruitlands, 14km out of Alex, where I run a few cows.”

Russell is involved with the Leaning Rock retirement village, the McPhail Charitable Trust and Ida MacDonald Charitable Trust which make grants of about $30,000 a year to local communities.

He admits to a guilty pleasure when it comes to music.

“I’m not musical but have done a bit of singing and dancing in my time. I like listening to The Edge radio. It’s absolute pap, Top 40 … not like these wankers who go and see the Rolling Stones - they’re gone.

“I enjoy Silent Witness on TV and we are lucky to have two little community picture theatres, one in Alex and one in Clyde, which show the latest films. We go about once every two weeks.

“The latest film was A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana student Seretse Khama and white Englishwoman Ruth Williams, who met at a London Missionary Society dance in 1947. It’s fantastic. Another is Lion, about an Indian guy who was adopted by some Tasmanians and eventually found his birth family 20-30 years after.

History and old castles

“I enjoy reading Bernard Cornwell’s historical stuff. When I go to England and Europe I like tottering round the old castles where they are set. I like facts and read wartime books on Passchendaele, Berlin, Warsaw, Stalingrad etc.

“We have a crib at Pounawea in the Catlins - with loads of 20 minute walks handy. I drive a Korean SsangYong Actyon ute – it’s my second, 20 grand cheaper than a Hilux – I had seven of those - and 20 grand better.”

His dinner guests would be US singer Rihanna and 24-year-old Scottish blog poet Lorna Wallace, who won Dunedin’s Robert Burns Poetry Competition with a poem poking fun at Donald Trump.

“I like doing things with my hands so if I wasn’t a lawyer I would do something mechanical, like welding, as my Dad did.

“I was incapable of doing anything else but law at university. Anything with a C minus average was right up my alley. I got into law by default and have always liked arguing. It’s worked out really well - I have enjoyed myself.

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