New Zealand Law Society - Why wood-burners attract curious opera singer

Why wood-burners attract curious opera singer

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By Jock Anderson 

Virgina Anne (Virginia) Nichols
Entry to law
Graduated LLB, BSc (Hons) in physics and ME(Elec) from Canterbury University. Admitted 2004. 
Senior associate at Saunders & Co, Christchurch. 
Speciality area
New Zealand and Australia patent attorney. Intellectual property law including patents, trademarks, copyright and IP strategy, litigation and court.
Virginia Nichols
Virginia Nichols

If opera-singing patent attorney Virginia Nichols comes calling, don’t be surprised if she gets down an all fours and peers into your wood burner.

She’ll be checking out if the airflow passage in the firebox falls within the scope of a patent infringement case involving wood burners she worked on a few years ago.

“I learned a lot about how wood burners burn fuel … I look for that when I see a fire…

“And, no, we don’t have one in our house…”

An accomplished opera chorus singer and Mozart fan, Virginia is looking forward to devoting more time to opera as more venues open up in post-earthquake Christchurch, including the Aotea Centre at Burnside High School and a new auditorium at her old school, St Margaret’s College.

She has been a member of the Southern Opera, Canterbury Opera, the National Youth Choir, Cantores Chamber, St Barnabas Parish Choir and earlier won a scholarship to the New Zealand Opera School.

Studying singing since she was 15, she has an Associate of Trinity College London diploma, and twice won the Shoestring Opera Trophy – awarded annually to a Canterbury singer under 30 considered to have the most potential.

Marriage and a family meant a break from opera and when the earthquakes hit a lot of cultural pursuits fell by the wayside.

“Now there has been a resurgence. Singing in the cardboard cathedral is nice, it’s a much smaller space than the old cathedral and is a very light building – but hot.

“We like to get out for a tramp.

“Last year we did the Milford Track, this year the Kaikoura coastal track and I’m keen to do the Tongariro Crossing ... We carted the kids in back packs when they were smaller and now they want to be running around a bit more…

“What is interesting is seeing different places and getting out of what you know.”

Virginia enjoys classical literature – Jane Austen and Charles Dickens being her favourites – and the fantasies of JRR Tolkein.

“I’m waiting to catch up on the second series of Broadchurch, but I never got into TV legal dramas so much, some of the cross examination is a bit irrelevant.

“I like comic book television such as Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and we all like watching Nigel Latta blowing things up…”

During a family dinner when “an impressionable teenager”, a relative who was a patent attorney suggested her unusual mix of physics, chemistry, French and Japanese subjects would suit being a patent attorney.

“I have always been interested in science and how things work … it was one of favourite subjects at school, and I fell into law alongside science.

“A patent attorney has to combine an understanding of how things work with being able to use language to describe things in a legalistic way.

“A lot of patent attorneys are dual qualified as lawyers, so I started doing some law papers alongside physics and engineering and after eight years at university I got my LLB.”

[For the record, Virginia’s technical background included post-graduate work in Nanostructure Engineering Science and Technology, focusing on the fabrication and characterisation of wide band-gap semiconductors, particularly Gallium Nitride – one of the first materials used to make blue LEDs, and which can be used to make UV conductors.]

After eleven years as a senior associate with patent attorneys PL Berry in Christchurch, including six years practising as a barrister, Virginia joined Saunders & Co as a senior associate earlier this year – a move giving her the opportunity to get some more general dispute resolution experience in other areas.

“I personally enjoy the challenge of court work but it is always satisfying to have a happy client…”

She is lucky to be working part-time at the moment, which enables her to juggle a three-year-old son, a daughter turning five in July and excited about starting school, and a software engineer husband who works for Airways Corporation.

“I don’t have to be in the office on Fridays, and can also finish a little early for children’s swimming lessons.

“Fortunately most clients understand and are happy if you say you won’t be in the office on Friday because you’re with my family, and you’ll follow-up on Monday.

“They accept it’s part of modern life, particularly if they have families themselves … And most things can wait until Monday.

“It means it is easier to work and concentrate on work while at work because you don’t have to worry about other things which you have time to deal with away from work.”

“One of the things I like about intellectual property is you get to look at so many different things, different companies and different new technologies,” Virginia says.

“It’s an occupational hazard that you find out details about things and can never look at them the same way again.

“Like looking inside wood burners…” 

Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for several decades. He also writes the weekly Caseload column for the New Zealand Herald. Contact Jock at

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