New Zealand Law Society - Ten Questions: Ben Vanderkolk

Ten Questions: Ben Vanderkolk

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Ben Vanderkolk
Ben Vanderkolk

Palmerston North Crown Solicitor, Ben Vanderkolk has been involved in well over 400 jury trials and more than 40 murder trials, along with a wide spread of relationship property, child welfare work, trust work and general litigation. He has also been involved in a lot of regulatory compliance work under the Resource Management Act, and has acted for the Commerce Commission and the Accident Compensation Corporation.

Mr Vanderkolk was admitted in 1982 and is a Fellow of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand. He is also the New Zealand Law Society Manawatu Branch President.

Why did you choose law as a career?

Observing my parents' lawyers in Matamata during the 60s and 70s, I was attracted to being a lawyer serving the rural community, conveying farms and agribusinesses where I could wear thousand acre jackets and drive Rovers.

Do you still feel that way?

I am still very connected to the primary production sector. My regulatory and my ADR practice is aligned to primary production. I'm very lucky to have raced a Fiat 124 Sports, owned an RS4 and maintained a couple of old Land Rovers. Fun fact for Land Rover enthusiasts: what is the relevance of the registration plate HUE 477 which I own? The prosecutor's suits, bar jackets and gowns (and wigs in the early days) have displaced the need for tweed. Fundamentally the desire to help people solve problems and later, advocacy in trial for the Crown remain the core reasons for being a lawyer then and now.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying law?

Everyone who enters law school has a passion, whether art, music, drama, literature, sport, economics, commerce, or politics. Ensure you do not permit the law to supplant or extinguish your passion. Keep it alive during your career and feed it. It is acceptable to zig-zag and change direction in your career. You could be a lawyer for over 40 years. Any experience is good experience and do not fear falling behind your peers while you change course or the area of law. This fear is more acute when in your 20s but irrelevant when in your 40s. Finally, press your employers hard for a combined professional and personal development plan separate from annual pay and performance review. Force a more universal and creative view of your career path with your employer by developing other interests. Your career development is more than just CPD compliance determined at an annual pay review.

What is the one thing that has given you the most satisfaction in your career?

There are three and all of them are a privilege.

  1. Working with victims of crime in their grief, desperation, confusion and bewilderment, to be strong in a demanding Court environment.
  2. Meeting, then, briefing, understanding and leading (and cross examining) the evidence of highly specialised expert witnesses
  3. Employing over 30 young lawyers (nearly two thirds women) and giving them a start in trial advocacy and watching them all progress in the law.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a lawyer?

At the time it was introduced, adjusting to being filmed in Court – where the camera was not merely recording the general proceedings in the interests of open justice but where it intruded into lawyers' workspace and our interaction with the Bench and the Jury. Equally, presiding over and delivering a determination of the former NZ Disciplinary Tribunal, striking two practitioners off the Roll.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing New Zealand lawyers?

The remuneration of non-partner lawyers in NZ is not internationally competitive. This affects highly trained lawyers' incentive to stay or return. It is often due to the remuneration expectation of ownership in NZ law firms and succession issues. It may be time to retain more in the business for non-partner remuneration and for law businesses to have fewer owners drawing profits and more lawyers earning more. The NZ legal services market is small; law businesses operate on quite low margins. If ownership is a barrier to competitive remuneration for mid-tier lawyers, the profession will struggle always to fill the talent gap. The profession is vulnerable to a decline in numbers of the general practitioner, particularly in a provincial setting. Many are at the end of their career and general practice may not be viewed by law graduates as desirable or rewarding. I am sure there is a cohort of law graduates who would find acting throughout the lifetime legal needs of a client deeply enriching and fulfilling. The profession and law schools could be encouraged to deliver to the public, more well qualified and dedicated general practitioners.

What do you enjoy doing outside lawyering?

I really enjoy my governance roles in tertiary education which are stimulating and provide contact with a diverse world outside the law. In another domain entirely, anything to do with regional development and my heritage: currently an involvement in the National Dutch and Māori Heritage Centre at Foxton. And, I thrive on travel which has an element of adventure and surprise.

What music do you listen to?

Currently female soloists like Marianne Faithful (now and then), Amy Winehouse, Natalie Merchant, and Audra McDonald. Any of the performances of a selected lyric soprano immerses me in the world of opera. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are always playing on every device.

What are you reading at the moment?

Re-read recently Man Alone by John Mulgan, a NZ classic with insight into NZ culture. Relating to my interest in the history and commerce of trade, Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thurbron. I'm about to read the biography of John Le Carre by Adam Gisman – I have a full set of Le Carre's novels. Smiley is one of my favourite literary characters. One of the past Solicitor's General bears a striking resemblance to George Smiley.

The best movie and TV shows I've seen?

I'm keen to see the latest Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight and I was quite absorbed with Breaking Bad. Please don't be disturbed…

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