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How law prevailed over exploring oral cavities

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Kirsten Massey
Kirsten Massey

A descendant of one of New Zealand’s most influential prime ministers, major litigation specialist Kirsten Massey very nearly opted to be a dentist.

Until her older sister, horrified at the thought of Kirsten spending her life drilling into people’s teeth, steered her younger sibling towards the law.

With no other lawyers in the family Kirsten, a great-great-granddaughter of Irish-born Prime Minister William Massey, diverted to law after heading to Otago University with the intention of becoming a doctor or a dentist, having studied sciences at school.

Kirsten Margaret (Kirsten) Massey
Brisbane (but moved here as a young child)
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (First Class Honours) and BSC (majoring in psychology) from Otago University. Admitted in 2000.
Partner at Russell McVeagh.
Speciality area
General commercial litigator.

“I did the first-year health sciences programme and also took some psychology papers. At the end of the first year, when talking to my older sister, I was saying I thought dentistry was the thing for me.

“She looked at me aghast and could not understand why looking in people’s mouths was a good use of my skills. Dad agreed and said to think about what you enjoy.

“You get on the railroad tracks a bit if you are considered smart. People think smart people study sciences and become doctors. Perhaps I didn’t lift my head up and look around. My older sister did a first-year law course and it wasn’t for her but she thought it would be for me. So I did and almost immediately thought ‘this is the thing for me’.”

A litigation specialist, Kirsten recently returned to a partnership at Russell McVeagh after 15 years in London.

Born in Brisbane, she came to New Zealand in 1980, when she was three.

Dad Ben, a real estate agent in Napier and her late Mum Maggie, worked for what was then the New Zealand Tourist Bureau and were on a three-year posting to Brisbane, during which time Kirsten and her brother Carrick were born.

Her older sister Emma works in advertising, based in London. Carrick works around the world in marketing for Colgate Palmolive, and her younger sister Sarah is head of English at Lindisfarne College in Hastings.

Married to fellow lawyer Paul Clews, most recently a partner at White and Case in London, the couple have a son, Sam (10), and twin seven-year-old girls Maggie and Eve.

After leaving Otago University she was a judge’s clerk for two years for Justice Sir Andrew Tipping when he served on the Court of Appeal. Three years with Russell McVeagh followed before she headed to Herbert Smith Freehills in London in 2004 as a mid-level solicitor.

Kirsten was promoted to partner there in 2009 and since the financial crisis has had a heavy focus on financial services sector work.

She has been involved in some of the biggest cases in the Commercial Court of England and Wales in recent years, and played an instrumental role in achieving an historic settlement for the Royal Bank of Scotland on its landmark shareholder rights issue litigation, following the near collapse and government bailout of the bank in October 2008.

Most recently, she advised TSB UK following its well-publicised IT issues, conducted an investigation for international luxury clothing retailer Ted Baker into allegations of misconduct by its CEO (who eventually resigned), and been involved in several significant professional negligence cases, defending accountants and lawyers.

“For the last two years I headed Herbert Smith Freehills’ banking litigation practice, although I still steadfastly called myself a general commercial lawyer. I also dabbled outside financial services work.”

Kirsten is keen to focus here on the financial services sector, and professional negligence defence work. “I had experience in the United Kingdom defending accountants, lawyers and barristers, and I am keen to build up that aspect of practice. And also insolvency-related work.”

The rookie golfer

Her sporting activities are limited to golf, going to the gym, and walking the family’s two-year-old Irish Terrier, Harry, who was brought back from London.

“I have just started learning to play golf, which I always wanted to do, now that we are back in New Zealand and golf courses are that much closer.”

She has played at Millbrook, near Arrowtown, where her parents-in-law have a property, and at Omaha, north of Auckland.

Not yet involved with any community interests, Kirsten says she has “good intentions” to be.

“One of the reasons we came back was to feel a bit more engaged in the community. In London, being so busy with work and a decent commute, we did not have the time to be as involved in the local community as we would have liked.

“I would like to be more involved with the children’s school, St Mary’s in Northcote, maybe as a trustee.

“We did a lot of travelling while in London, through Europe, France, Spain, Portugal, and Crete, plus three trips to Thailand and Bali to meet the family - a good meet in the middle point. I have been to New York a number of times - it is one of our favourite cities. Paul worked there for a while.

“I don’t have a musical bone in my body. My son is a bit musical and creative. The most recent concert I was at was Canadian singer Michael Bublé at Mission Estate in Napier.

“I love to read crime fiction and spy novels. English writer Mick Herron has written a great spy series. I love Agatha Christie and Japanese crime author Keigo Higashino writes very clever crime novels.

“We watch a bit of TV when we get the chance but haven’t been to the cinema much. We tend to watch Netflix. Game of Thrones was never my cup of tea, but I enjoyed The Crown. I like factual programmes, including a very good series on the Vietnam war.

“I drive a Land Rover Discovery Sport. We always had a Land Rover Discovery in London, they are so practical and useful with children. I was disappointed when they made their shape more rounded, but the Sport seems a good option. I am keen to get an electric car but waiting until we can do a trip to Lake Taupo and back.

“We have a small place on the lake at Kinloch, my favourite holiday spot. My brother-in-law is a farmer in Hawke’s Bay and brings his boat over. He is a keen fisherman. We have a jetski, which Dad got.”

Thrown in at the deep end

In her younger days at Russell McVeagh, Kirsten appeared in a major commercial dispute junioring alongside Stephen Kós (now Justice Kós, President of the Court of Appeal).

“We were against Jack Hodder and Stephen insisted I present a portion of the submissions, which, as a young solicitor, I thought was verging on blind faith. But I did it and it seemed to go well, and we won. That is a stark memory in my mind.

“More recently, in my Royal Bank of Scotland class action, there were four claimant groups. We managed to settle with three before trial but were struggling to wrangle a settlement with the final one and managed to get an agreement right at the doors of court.

“It was uncertain if the judge would adjourn the trial to allow all claimants to sign up, there had been a number of adjournments. Everyone had to turn up ready to start. It was a nervous moment but we got there in the end, got the trial adjourned and ultimately got the settlement over the line.”

Kirsten’s special dinner guests would be her late Mum Maggie. “I don’t know what I would serve up but it would have to be something involving potatoes, Mum loved potatoes. She always told us it was her Irish roots. With a nice red wine Central Otago pinot noir and a sauvignon blanc for me.

“Something in the teaching line would be my cup of tea if I wasn’t a lawyer. A school teacher or a lecturer. I’d follow my sister into a secondary school.”

Kirsten is a great-great-granddaughter of former New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey. “I did a school project on him in Standard 4.”

Massey was the founding leader of the Reform Party, and New Zealand’s 19th Prime Minister, from May 1912 to May 1925. Born in Limavady in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where a statue is erected in his honour, he was known as Farmer Bill, and lead his party through four terms before dying in office.

“There is a statue of him in Limavady. When Mum and Dad went there in 2010 someone realised Dad was related to William Massey and it caused a big stir in the village. He is still someone they remember. And no, there is no connection with tractors.”

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