New Zealand Law Society - How one lawyer refused to let illness define her or her legal ability

How one lawyer refused to let illness define her or her legal ability

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Heather Murdoch
Heather Murdoch

Diagnosed at 20 with the chronic disability systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Heather Murdoch had to create her whole legal career around coping and managing her immune disorder illness.

Lupus is a systemic auto-immune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect different body systems, including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs. It is treatable but there is no cure.

“I was diagnosed with lupus in my third year at law school and was doing my honours degree. That was hard. I was in my 20s and was in and out of hospital for a couple of weeks at a time,” says Heather, who recently joined her husband Tim Trollope as a senior associate in his Christchurch law firm.

Heather Lyane (Heather) Murdoch
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Hons) from Canterbury University in 1987. Admitted in 1987. Member of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand.
Senior associate at Trollope and Co, Christchurch
Speciality area
Dispute resolution

“I have created my whole career based on having a disability. It has been difficult and I have met all sorts of issues.

“It’s a worry because a lot of people today say never mention it because it will put you back or you won’t get jobs, or people don’t want to know. I think people should be okay about having a chronic illness and still establish a career. It’s a good message to get out there but it gets mixed messages.”

Heather says it is important with the ongoing review of law firms in relation to harassment, bullying and mental health, to consider people with chronic illness.

“There’s a lot of people who are resilient and determined and who have other issues in their life such as chronic illness. I still feel there is discrimination.

“If you declare to an employer you have a chronic illness, you don’t know what you might miss out on. I have created my whole career in spite of this.

“What I am clear about is it does not define who I am. Anyone with a chronic illness who works, is strong.

“All we need is to have medical support and I don’t think we are there yet. I am nervous about putting it out there because I think it would prevent me from being a mediator, and I shouldn’t be nervous.

“I want to be a strong person prepared to stand up and have a voice. Hiding behind it all the time is not helping other people in a similar position. It’s how I say it. And I shouldn’t have to be careful what I say. I should be admired.

“I would like to step out and speak on behalf of people who have been determined and resilient and had additional challenges in their lives. The additional challenge in my case is a chronic illness.

“I want firms to re-look at themselves, and there are lots of things to look at.

“When I applied for my job as a judge’s clerk I did not know what to put so I put SLE support group as one of my hobbies. Justice Hardie Boys asked me what SLE was, so that taught me a lesson.

“It also has an impact on my home life. It has given my children and husband strength and understanding, and also given them sadness and grief.

“But no-one with a chronic illness should fear judgement on who they are and their academic ability, their talents as a lawyer and their usefulness.

“I think I gave that message to the students I taught at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. Lupus does not define me and I don’t like being defined by it.

“I think it’s time after 30 years legal experience that I do stand up and say I can be there for you.”

Born into education

Early in her career Heather clerked in Christchurch for High Court Justices Alan Holland, Michael Hardie Boys, Andrew Tipping and Neil Williamson.

She later worked with several Ombudsmen, including David McGee, Beverly Wakem, Ron Patterson, Leo Donnelly and Peter Boshier. She has a diploma in advanced investigation from Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

Her father John Murdoch, a former principal of Cashmere High School, and her mother Enid, a former primary school teacher, live in a retirement home in Christchurch.

“I was born and bred into education and grew up thinking Cashmere High was my backyard.” Older sisters, Sue, is a physiotherapist and Sally is a GP.

“I’m the first lawyer in a mainly teaching and medical family.”

Married to the firm’s principal, Tim Trollope, the couple have a daughter Helena (25), who last year married the boy she went out with from St Andrews College from the age of 15, and son Ted (21).

“Tim and I met in Form 2 and we didn’t like each other.

“Helena is on her way back from Africa after doing an elective year of medicine studies and Ted, who went to teach overseas, is taking his time and thinking about his future.

“I’m not sure anything attracted me to law. I remember wanting to be a dentist and my English teacher said that was being a glorified plumber, and asked what I wanted to be a dentist for.

“I got unwell about that stage and I wanted to do a degree with an end result. In our family we never considered not doing tertiary education. At the end of it I had to be a lawyer.

“I have been trying to reinvent myself a bit, doing strength training to keep body and brain strong with a personal trainer.”

Creative streak

“I love colour and keeping it all around me, in interior design and clothing. I can’t live without colour. I have a weird hobby where I go round recycling shops and only buy stuff that’s labelled.

“I’ve got imagination and vision in design and interior decoration but can’t put it into effect so have to somehow manoeuvre Tim into a position to get things done. I have a creative streak. My father called them visions when I started decorating our first home.

“I am a knitter – I didn’t know if it was cool to say that. And I want to get back into making and designing things. I like art and photography but I need lessons.

“I collect things and one of my favourite places is the vintage/antique market in Charlottenburg in Berlin. I sometimes wish we could have a container.

“I am addicted to my Kindle because I can get through so many books. I’ve read all the Outlander series, Game of Thrones and JK Rowling in her Robert Galbraith books. A book that sticks in my memory is by American writer Donna Tartt - her first one Secret History. I like action thrillers and forensic murders.

“We’re trying to go to more films. I like the Bodyguard series on television and British and Australian shows and a binge on Netflix.

“I adore music and am more involved in music because of my family. Tim is an excellent drummer and plays in a band called Collectors Edition. He played for the first dance at our daughter’s wedding, where she also played the trumpet.

“Ted is a pipe bander on the bass drum and was part of the St Andrews crew that won the juvenile category of the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow in 2013, the first time a New Zealand school won the international competition.

“I learned the piano and violin but don’t play any more. I love music and I’m the best band chick a band could ever have. I Iove dancing and I’m right out the front there.

“I don’t do any sport but do yoga now. And watch the All Blacks and Canterbury – and go to most of their games – and hockey, which I played at school. Daughter Helena still plays hockey up to senior grade.

“We have two lovely dogs. I love my dogs. One is a surprise I never thought I would have, an 11-year old bogan Bichon Frise called Lud, after the Ludwig brand of drums (played by Ringo Starr).

“It was the only way I could convince my husband to have him - name him after a drum set. He’s a dude with attitude. We have a black Cocker Spaniel called Elsie and Mona, the tabby cat.

“My cars have to be black so I drive a black Citroen DS4.”

The German connection

“I collect things but get to about five things then stop. It’s coloured glass at the moment – vases. I got our first one in Prague, then found a 1960s designer called Walter Bosse and have about six things of his which I bought in Berlin. I have phases of collecting.

“I grew up going to Totaranui in the Abel Tasman National Park on shingle roads so we did that with our children and they loved it. We have a Huntsman Series 6 powerboat and go to the Marlborough Sounds a lot.

“We often go to Little Port Cooper on Banks Peninsula at weekends. There’s a cool little school where the lighthouse keeper’s kids went. We prefer the sea to lakes.

“Tim’s brother is in Berlin, and we have nephews in Australia – I am a great-auntie – so we visit them quite a bit.

“My dinner guests would include my maternal great grandfather Ernest Herman, who arrived in New Zealand, aged 17, as a stowaway from Germany. He married Ann and they settled in Oxford. I should invite her as well – I don’t want to be haunted by her for leaving her out.

“He had no education but was a brilliant self-made mechanical engineer – and built his own car. We have a photograph of his large wild family spilling out of it.

“I guess I would serve a traditional roast cooked with duck fat. Who knows what he drank … beer? Certainly not wine.

“Leonard Cohen is truly beautiful so we would sit around the lounge and talk. I will be love struck so will end up just staring at him. I know he loved Johnny Walker, although Tim, who doesn’t drink Johnny Walker, would haul out his collection of whisky.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer or a mediator I would love to be a broadcaster on radio or an actor. I left school wanting to be a journalist but I was put off by journalism trainer Brian Priestley, who said I’d never make it.

“The other career I am moving into now, late, is setting up as an independent mediator. I could not have done that without a legal background, so one has led to the other. I will be at the AMINZ conference in Christchurch in August.

“Another thing I would like to do is go into law firms and teach a seminar called developing junior practitioners. I used to do this.

“There is a need to teach things such as proper delegation on how to develop someone, so they didn’t sit there getting bored then leave. I think there is a real need for that and I would like to be that person.

“I love training and attend as much training as I can go to.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at

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