New Zealand Law Society - International arbitrator returns to Aotearoa shores

International arbitrator returns to Aotearoa shores

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Zoe Brentnall returned to Gilbert Walker earlier this year after seven years practising international arbitration at Shearman & Sterling in Singapore, Paris and London, where she represented multi-national firms in major commercial and investment treaty arbitrations in the energy and infrastructure sectors.

She says one of the reasons she wanted to come back to New Zealand was because of the legal professional community.

Zoe Ann (Zoe) Brentnall
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Honours), BA from Auckland University. Admitted in New Zealand in 2010 and England and Wales in 2017.
Associate at Gilbert Walker, Auckland.
Specialist area
General commercial litigation.

“It’s a great community and one where you can more easily foster professional relationships compared to the huge and disparate international legal community.”

Zoe Brentnall
Zoe Brentnall

Zoe arrived in New Zealand two days before Alert Level 4 lockdown began.

One of three top graduates in her law school class, she was awarded a senior scholarship in law from Auckland University in 2010. She is a member of the Young International Arbitration Group, the Society of Construction Law and the Auckland Women’s Law Association.

There are no other lawyers in her family. Her father Graeme works for a company in Auckland which delivers fruit boxes to companies for their staff. Zoe’s mother Jeanette works in a supermarket in Whitianga and was on the frontline of the pandemic. Brother Scott is a builder living in Amsterdam and sister Lauren lives in Grey Lynn, Auckland, and teaches English as a second language. Her partner Michael works in commercial property.

“I chose to study law on the suggestion of a high school teacher and as it turned out it was a good decision,” she says.

“I admire people who are able to maintain a true hobby – I don’t count reading books, watching television or cooking as hobbies - that is just living."


“I have one thing that’s a bit geriatric - I do crochet, and specialise in very ugly things. I go to op shops, buy wool and make blankets mostly because it is easy to do.

“I am trying to branch out into other things. What I make never goes anywhere - usually back to the op shop from whence they came. But it is enjoyable and quite meditative. I put on a podcast and listen to that while crocheting.

“My Mum is very into arts and crafts, quilts and all sorts of things. I decided quilting looked too difficult and required too much patience. Crochet is not too hard. I watched some videos on YouTube and taught myself how to do it. I can pick up and put down as the mood takes, so it takes a very long time to finish something.

“I did netball and tennis at high school, but I’m not good at sport. I was okay but didn’t love it. I still enjoy tennis with my Mum but I have never beaten her, which is something she likes to remind me of.

“I only get engaged with sport every four years when a world cup rolls around. The rest of the time I don’t pay any attention.

“I did a lot of travel in Europe, which is easy to do if you live in Paris or London. When I finished university I spent three months travelling around South America on a shoestring budget - the kind of thing you do at that age.

“It was a great experience but once you have other choices there’s no way you would choose to sleep in a hostel room with 40 other people. And I have travelled a little but around south-east Asia. I have never been to Africa, which is one place I would like to go, nor to the Pacific Islands.”

Listening over playing

Zoe says she tried to play the clarinet and piano for a while, but settled for listening to music. “Michael’s family are very musical, they play, sing and write music. He plays the guitar, both electric and acoustic. I like English bands Hot Chip and electronic duo Disclosure.

“When you have read so much during the day for work you don’t feel so inclined to read again at night. I am amazed that President Obama at the end of each year could recommend a big list of books he read while president.”

“I read a book during lockdown - Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic and I highly recommend it.

“On television I enjoy The Crown, Breaking Bad and The Americans.

“We don’t have any pets at the moment but Michael wants a dog, which is okay provided he does 100% of the work.

“In theory I can drive a car, although I still have a restricted driver’s licence, which means I can’t drive after 10pm and can’t take passengers. But we are looking at buying a car. I have zero interest in cars - even less than I have in sport. I have no opinion on the matter provided it functions and doesn’t cost too much.

“I am an aspirational cook, and I don’t need to be dazzled at dinner by Barack Obama. I would be happy to be amused by American humourist David Sedaris, who writes autobiographical books with funny anecdotes about his life. We would have a Lebanese fattoush salad with stuffed capsicum and some sauvignon blanc.”

Zoe’s first arbitration hearing in London is one she won’t forget.

“It involved a nuclear power plant in Finland that was behind time and over-budget. Our client Areva was engaged to design and construct the plant, which was extremely late, and the owner was suing our client.

“There were 50 people on each side, including 20 lawyers on each side, nuclear experts and various other expert witnesses. Screens everywhere like a NASA control room. The case was ultimately settled.”

An alternative career is one that would involve some digging.

“I like the idea of being an investigative journalist – to take a deep dive into a topic, the angles and the variety, tracking down the story, chasing up leads, working out the angles.

“It would involve many of the same skills as a lawyer.

“It may not be glamorous but I don’t need glamour, I like the thrill of the chase.”

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