There would be few lawyers who aimed to practise as long as Trevor Booth, who recently retired at the age of 90.
“I cannot recall a day when I felt I was having to go to the office as I always looked forward to going to work. I never thought about retiring until I had to consider whether I was still able to provide the service to my clients that they deserved,” he says.
Mr Booth was born in 1928, growing up on a dairy farm near Waharoa in Waikato. He went to Auckland Grammar School in the mid-1940s and then what was known as Auckland University College where he gained a Bachelor of Science in Pure and Applied Mathematics by 1949.
At that stage law wasn’t on his radar as a career choice and his first job was for the AMP Society as an actuarial student. By 1955 he had moved to Wellington to work at the branch office.
“I had made slow progress as an actuarial student and when I was about halfway through, I changed to law and started my studies at what was called Victoria University College in about 1958,” he says.
The appeal of law
Serving and connecting with people was mostly what attracted Trevor Booth to law.
“The world is people – not places or bank accounts and as an actuary my exposure to people would have been very limited. I gain a lot of satisfaction knowing that as a lawyer my client can leave their concerns in my office and resume a more normal life,” he says.
During his time studying law, Mr Booth began working as a law clerk for the firm Luke Cunningham and Clere. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1962 and as a barrister in 1963. After leaving Wellington to join Innes Oakley and Laurenson in Palmerston North, he was offered partnership in the firm around 1964. He stayed with that firm until 1973 when he moved to Rotorua to work for Urquhart Roe and Partners, where he remained until 1976. That was the year he became a sole practitioner in Rotorua.
“I did this until the early 1980s when I was joined in partnership by Malcolm Lake and the late David Rangitauira.”
That partnership ended in 1984, when the three men decided to go their separate ways. From there Trevor Booth opened a home office and remained a sole practitioner for the rest of his career. He moved from Rotorua to Auckland three years ago.
Law in the 1960s
Rewinding to the 1960s, Trevor Booth remembers very different times for the law profession.
“The largest law practices were based in Wellington because the head offices of most major companies such as banks, insurance and vehicle dealerships were based there,” he says.
He says back then major law firms such as Bell Gully and Chapman Tripp had perhaps five partners each.
“I vividly remember that the waiting area of Bell Gully’s office had a blazing log fire burning during cold winter days.”
Areas of practice in the 60s
“As a staff solicitor in a firm where the youngest partner was 65, I was given all of the firm’s court work, which was mainly minor prosecutions and also family law matters. In those days debt collection was handled largely by law firms and I recall issuing default summonses for amounts below $10. I graduated from there to company and commercial and trust law and the normal conveyancing law and its complications,” he says.
Mr Booth reflects that in those days, clients had a solicitor rather than a firm and all lawyers had what he describes as ‘broad legal knowledge’.
“But the law was much less encompassing than it is today. It was practical for a lawyer to handle a traffic prosecution as well as wills and other areas of law.”
A solicitor’s word is their bond
Mr Booth practised law in several towns and cities during his long career. When he began practising in Palmerston North, he says a solicitor’s word was their bond, similar to a handshake. However, a flurry of cases involving money handling perhaps changed that philosophy.
“There were four cases where there were fraudulent defalcations which occurred in the space of a few months and about a month after I had completed the purchase of a property for a client, that client came to me and I distinctly remember his words.
“Trevor, I’m sorry but can you show me the title?”
It seemed a solicitor’s word had ceased to be a bond and he says these days it now means comparatively little to clients. He laments that law has slowly become a business rather than a profession.
The ‘army’ law student and courtroom etiquette
Trevor Booth was a fellow student of the late Mike Bungay QC.
“Mike and I did various subjects together at law school when we were doing our degrees. Mike would arrive in lectures dressed in his army uniform,” he says.
Mike Bungay is remembered for appearing in over 100 murder trials and as co-author of Bungay on Murder with media commentator Brian Edwards. He died in 1993.
“When I joined Luke Cunningham and Clere in my early days as a law clerk, my desk was next to the late Jim Larsen,” he says.
The significance of this is that the character of Jim Larsen was part of the television series Dear Murderer, a story about the life of Mike Bungay QC.
When you’ve practised law as long as Trevor Booth, memories are something you collect. It’s perhaps the little details a person remembers that illustrate how things were back in more conservative New Zealand days, such as this courtroom recollection.
“Haslam J would not allow any member of the public who were sitting in the courtroom to sit with their legs crossed and the registrar and the court constable had the job of ensuring compliance with this ruling,” he says.
There was also the sentencing of a man by Hutchison J for murder in 1961, which he distinctly remembers.
“The mandatory sentence was death but he did not place the black silk on his head because the abolition of the death sentence was near and a reprieve was almost certainly going to be granted otherwise.”
The definition of a professional
Mr Booth was given some sound ethical advice early in his career, when he worked in Palmerston North.
“It was ‘A professional puts his profession before his pocket’. That definition was given to me by the late Jim McBride, who was the senior partner at the Palmerston North firm, McBride Lusk and Elwood.”
During his career, Mr Booth always followed a legal philosophy that a professional had two main duties.
“The first is to the client – who I always told my staff is the most important person in the room. The second is to the profession and its rising members. Any fresh out of university solicitors I employed spent the first month on the other side of my desk and after each client had been interviewed we discussed ‘the hows and whys of the situation’. They disliked it but one later told me that it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“I had a very good idea of how my clients were being looked after when the time came for them to have their own office and conduct their own interviews,” he says.
Other uses for legal skills
During his long career Trevor Booth used his legal skills in other interest areas, such as being one of the first Tenancy Tribunal Adjudicators. He was also a member of the Bay of Plenty Harbour Board during the time the Harbour Bridge project started.
Mr Booth has been married twice, and he and his second wife Bonni moved to Auckland in 2016. He has six children from the two marriages.
“It was difficult and not in my Rotorua client’s interests to maintain the Rotorua practice as it had been in the past and since making the move I have been working less hours than normal. I was faced with the option of working to develop a practice in Auckland which I would have had to retire from in a year or two or allowing my practice to dwindle which is the choice I made,” he says.
While he may have retired – in June this year – during his career he regularly encouraged and mentored new lawyers. Mentoring is a skill he says young lawyers need the benefit of and while practising law is now increasingly aided by technology, he hopes traditional people mentoring will not be made redundant.