New Zealand Law Society - Porsche-racing son of Ireland inspired by Perry Mason

Porsche-racing son of Ireland inspired by Perry Mason

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Derek Johnston
Derek Johnston

A commitment to extra legal study drove leading commercial lawyer Derek Johnston to sell his race track Porsche – but he keeps something special tucked away in his garage.

A footballer at school and university, Derek got seriously into motor racing in his 40s and 50s for ten years. “You could say I had a bit of a mid-life crisis, bought a Porsche, raced in the Porsche Bridgestone series and did the Targa Rally a few times.

“I was definitely not up the front but it took my mind off the office. I don’t race any more.

Dr Derek Samuel (Derek) Johnston
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Honours) from Auckland University in 1979, Master of Jurisprudence (with Distinction) from Auckland University in 1981, Doctor of Juridical Science from Toronto University in 1982, Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration in 2014. Admitted in 1979.
Barrister in Thorndon Chambers, Wellington.
Specialist area
Company, commercial, competition and financial markets law.

“When I Ieft Russell McVeagh in 2011 to go to the independent Bar I wanted to be an arbitrator so did a few years study and various papers for my Diploma in International Commercial Arbitration. That meant my time in the race car was reduced and I eventually sold it, which was a bit of a shame.”

These days Derek drives a VW Tuareg 4x4 but also has a 2004 Porsche 911 limited edition anniversary model in the garage, brought out to mark the 40th anniversary of the 911.

A commercial barrister and arbitrator practising at Thorndon Chambers since 2011, he was appointed a member of the Commerce Commission for five years from November.

Derek is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand and a number of arbitration organisations. He was previously chair of the New Zealand Markets Disciplinary Tribunal and recently completed a three-year term as independent non-director member and chair of the Regulatory Governance Committee of NZX Ltd.

He has extensive expertise and experience in competition and commercial law, including advising key sectors such as dairy, telecommunications, gas and electricity. He has advised on many significant acquisitions and other major commercial transactions and arrangements. Before 2011 he was a commercial partner at Russell McVeagh for more than 25 years.

Derek’s bank teller father immigrated to New Zealand from Derry in Ireland in 1953.

“He had intended to go to New York to join up with his brother but got as far as Whangarei, met my mother and that was the end of it.” Derek has one brother, living in Whangarei.

“So, I was able to collect an Irish passport as well which I thought was a good insurance policy.”

With no other lawyers in the family and married the second time round, Derek has a blended family of five - two sons aged 33 and 31 from his first marriage and three children with his second wife, all of whom have completed science degrees.

“My wife Sue has an interesting career, she is a facilitator and personal development coach and is a New Zealand facilitator for Texas professor and leadership researcher Brene Brown.

“Sue trained as a mental health nurse and became the youngest-ever nurse advisor in the Ministry of Health, moving into policy and medical misadventure areas.

“I get out on a mountain bike in the Wairarapa when I can, doing about 20 or 30 kilometres on the flat.

“I haven’t done much travelling and most has been work related. The odd holiday in Australia, and back and forth to Canada with my first wife, whose parents were still living about 100 miles north of Toronto. A short trip around Europe and a visit to friends in Thailand on the way to London. I have not been to Ireland but it is on the list.

Persuaded by Perry Mason

“I’m not sure I wanted to be a lawyer. I Initially wanted to be a doctor but at age six or eight decided I didn’t like the sight of blood, so being a lawyer became a focus from an early age.

“The more I got into it the more I enjoyed it and thrived on it. Maybe I was inspired by Perry Mason. There are no other lawyers in the family, but something about the law resonated and I have enjoyed it.”

Derek Johnston biking
Derek Johnston biking

He prefers commercial law for its constructive side. “Putting things together and making things work rather than picking up pieces after messes have arisen.”

“I don’t play any musical instruments but listen to an eclectic range, including easy listening or country. I like Johnny Cash and saw him many years ago in Auckland.”

“I rarely get to the movies and watch a bit of TV, mainly light-hearted stuff, drama and comedy. I like The Outlander and The Queen.

“Winston Churchill is the name that comes to mind as a dinner guest. I don’t cook much apart from burgers and to drink we would have a pinot noir from Martinborough or a sirah from Hawke’s Bay and a Central Otago pinot.”

Derek says being fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a lot of significant transactions has resulted in many memorable moments.

Having been appointed last November he is coming to grips with balancing Commerce Commission work and his busy practice. “For the time being the Commerce Commission is going to take up the predominant part of my time.”

“So I step back from having a room in chambers to being a door tenant in chambers and will look to do some advisory work.

“It’s a matter of wait and see and see what spare capacity is there. Commission work will take priority so I’m having to scale down any other work that was requiring urgent attention.

“No other career has appealed to me, but about the time I finished law school I was going overseas to do post graduate study and I thought seriously about becoming an academic.

“I applied for a couple of jobs in Canada when I was studying up there. But I had worked at Russell McVeagh before I went overseas and they had a job and were keen to have me back, so I came back to that.

“I’m very glad I did. I have had lots of fulfilment in my career. I think I would have got reasonably bored in academic work in reasonably short order.

“For me it would not have had the variety and the challenge of a wide range of commercial transaction work or advisory work, all of which has its own distinct intellectual challenge and urgency around it.

“I have a real affinity for Whananaki, north of Whangarei, where my grandparents built a bach, which is still there, and enjoy spending holidays there.

“In some respects that’s where the heart is. I like walking the beaches. I have a boat in storage in the Marlborough Sounds – a 22ft Buccaneer Billfisher which hasn’t seen much of the water lately – and I enjoy getting out and doing a bit of fishing and relaxing down there when we can.

“For some years we had a beach house out of Russell, and I enjoyed fishing in the Bay of Islands.”

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