Imagine a law firm where casual dress is king, footwear is optional and the big cases are not always worked on by the most experienced lawyer.
John Miller Law in Wellington is located inside the old Hannah shoe warehouse, and with the large steel earthquake strengthening work that adorns the building frame, the wooden floors with engrained machine marks, it mimics art deco in the industrial sense.
The firm employs a team of about 19 including 13 lawyers of which 10 are women. The firm also employs six administrative staff made up of five women and one man.
And while most large law firms are quick to display their flash reception areas and exceptionalism, the thing that strikes you first when landing at this law firm are the now biblical looking old law books displayed in a couple of modest wooden bookcases.
John Miller is considered one of the country’s leading exponents of ACC law. His firm won New Zealand’s largest civil settlement of $228 million for backdated payments to many families of seriously injured claimants to whom ACC had refused to pay full 24-hour care.
The Scotsman had humble beginnings, the son of a train driver who left school at age 16, becoming a so-called “ten pound immigrant” to New Zealand where he eventually attended Victoria University to study law, a place where he also ended up lecturing in law.
Women lawyers outnumber the men 3:1
John Miller Law stands out as a little different to the so-called mainstream commercial law firms in that women lawyers outnumber men considerably and the only principal is John.
“Everybody here works their own cases. We’re a bit different because I’m the only partner. My son, who is the practice manager, isn’t even a partner.”
So it’s an egalitarian playing field at the law practice?
“It is. In fact some of the women lawyers who work here are earning more than the males,” he says.
Mr Miller says it is not about people being elevated to more senior positions as everyone is doing similar work.
Staff get to work Court of Appeal cases, usually reserved for more experienced lawyers
“I’ve brought some of my staff into Court of Appeal cases and that’s usually something that only really experienced lawyers will get to do. I guess many lawyers would see that as a great opportunity to put on their CV, but then most of my staff will stay with me for at least five years.
“They get good experience here, court work right away, whereas I think many law firms do tend to keep the court work for the partners. You get your own file and you get support here,” he says.
Mr Miller’s even handed work philosophy means that often if someone begins work on a serious case, they’ll stay on it regardless of whether they’ve had two years’ experience or 20.
John Miller Law also deals with criminal and mental health law and the firm was recently before the District Court for an eight-day jury trial in relation to methamphetamine and the confiscation of a man’s house.
“Often it’s a matter of chance who does the work. Brittany Peck (a solicitor) did the initial work on the case so we did that trial together,” he says.
The egalitarian experience at John Miller Law is also in the fabric of the desk layout.
“I don’t have a special office. It’s all open plan and you can wear what you like here. You can be in bare feet, except if you have to go to court, we dress up for that,” he says.
And while the casual dress sense might irk some people, as John Miller explains, his lawyers have an excellent reputation.
“We’re not trying to make out we are something that we’re not. We’re not interested in conveyancing work. Our interest is in helping people and people come to us from all over the country,” he says.
Mr Miller says his firm is slowly steering away from criminal law work, mostly because the hours put in don’t match the pay at the other end of legal aid work.
“You get $200 and sometimes it makes my heart weep considering the number of hours we put in. In saying that we are not the sort of business where I’m saying you must get these many cases this year.”
Trust – a powerful tool that works
Trust between Mr Miller and his staff is a powerful tool that works.
“When we were getting a couple of million dollars of earthquake strengthening work done and couldn’t work here, people worked from home. It’s the way I’d like to be treated. People trust me to do my work and so I do the same and they get the job done,” he says.
So the law firm works like a family business and every Friday they have pizza and wine.
One of the 10 women who are lawyers at John Miller Law is Brittany Peck. She has been with the firm for over three years, starting off as a law clerk while she finished law school.
From dreadlocks to solicitor
“I turned up one day having just shaved off my dreadlocks. So here I am with a shaved head and a bit of a ratty looking student. I was handed a box of files and asked to read and review these,” she says.
A year later, Ms Peck had finished law school and then did her professional legal studies while still working at John Miller Law.
“They kept providing me with work while I was doing my professionals. I was also working at Wellington Hospital. John was just incredibly supportive in that final stressful year of law school and once I qualified, he employed me as a lawyer. I was already familiar with the work we were doing, including medical records such as ACC documents so there I was now with my own files,” she says.
She feels lucky to have stepped into a legal job with instant litigation experience and getting her own clients almost immediately.
“That probably feeds into the workplace culture of autonomy, responsibility and trust,” she says.
As Ms Peck explains, being able to hit the ground running is an essential skill needed at John Miller Law.
“It’s happened to me a few times. When I first began here I was helping two other lawyers that were working a big case that was actually being heard in the United Kingdom. When those lawyers went on maternity leave I picked up the case and became the main solicitor on it.
“Sometimes we might get a call and John might send me out to see a client who is having a problem. Then because I’ve done the initial client interview and established the relationship, I’ll usually end up working the case and sometimes this can end up in the High Court,” she says.
That situation occurred when Ms Peck investigated a client’s claim she was being held against her will at a drug rehabilitation centre, which she successfully argued in the High Court, leading to the woman’s release.
The former ecologist says when she studied law her sights were set on environmental law. However after working at the hospital during her law student days, it became more apparent that helping and advocating for people with health problems was a better professional fit.
ACC, mental health and criminal law are the specialties inside the John Miller Law tool kit.
Ms Peck says it is not uncommon to have a client with problems in all three of these areas.
“Often people I meet in any one of those spheres have issues in at least one of the other two spheres and you can actually provide quite a holistic service.
“I could have a client in the criminal area who has a head injury from a long time ago but hasn’t received entitlements under ACC or there might have been sexual abuse that they never had a sensitive claim for. You end up having an ongoing working relationship with these people because I know where these people have come from and what they’ve been through,” she says.
What’s it like working at a law firm without the top heavy hierarchy of partners and associates?
“It appeals to me. In the field we work in, I don’t think there’s a need to have that hierarchy.
“There are lawyers who have been here for less time than me who might actually be more knowledgeable about a different part of ACC law than me and sometimes I’ll go to them for advice and vice versa. In some firms a more senior lawyer probably wouldn’t feel they can go to a junior lawyer for input on a case, but we don’t have that situation here,” she says.
Being one of 10 women lawyers fits well with Ms Peck’s work philosophy.
“I’m really proud to be working at a firm where the lawyers are majority women and to be given huge responsibility,” she says.
And while it may feel as if you’re being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool from time to time, she says John Miller Law is very supportive of having a good work-life balance.
“John says it feeds into us being better lawyers.
“Everyone here has interests outside work and they have time to do those things. You hear about lawyers in some firms sitting around until 10 o’clock at night waiting for something to do. I have the odd late night but it’s certainly not the norm,” she says.
John Miller Law
Address: Level 1, The Hannah Warehouse, 13 Leeds Street,Te Aro, Wellington
Principal: John Miller
Practice manager/solicitor: Jonathon Miller
Finance manager: Donovan Miller
Solicitors: Christina Billing, Angela Brown, Hunter de Groot, Katty Lau, Brittany Peck, Elizabeth Bransgrove, Anna Kokje, Louise Newman, Beatrix Woodhouse
Law clerks (Due to be admitted in December): Louisa De Montalk, Charlotte Kerr, Tom Lynskey