Buying a nice family home for less than half a million dollars and spending only a few minutes on your daily commute might seem like a pipe dream, but many lawyers in Hastings are living that dream.
Lawyers in the Hawke’s Bay city wax lyrical about the lifestyle on offer, citing the sunny climate, vineyards, fresh produce, beaches, parks and cycle tracks as enticing foils to the stresses of the legal profession.
“Being able to go for a walk up Te Mata Peak or go for a bike ride or go to the beach in the evenings, you can’t understate that when you work in an industry that is hugely stressful and has great time pressures associated with it. That’s immeasurable in my view so I wouldn’t change that for anything,” says Kirstin Monk, a partner at Hastings-based Bay Legal, an all-female firm that specialises in family law.
“I think people are starting to understand a bit more that the ability to have a work/life balance, and to be able to buy a house, for example, is massive, and that’s what you can get if you live in a provincial area.”
Iain Taylor’s daily commute from his lifestyle block to his firm’s branch office in Havelock North takes about five minutes – 13 if he decides to ride his electric bike. A bad day’s traffic means waiting for four or five cars to clear the roundabout heading into the village, which lies just outside Hastings.
Mr Taylor, a partner at Gifford Devine, is enthusiastic about the lifestyle benefits on offer in the region, but also about the high quality of legal work in the area. “While Hawke’s Bay has a wonderful lifestyle and so forth, we still operate a very busy legal practice. The level of work that we do, the expectations and demands of clients, and the standards that we set ourselves, are still extremely high. We’re doing some quality work, but in a wonderful environment.”
Everyone knows everyone
One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective) of living in a smaller city, is that everyone knows everyone. This can be helpful when it comes to gaining new clients or work. “If you’re someone’s lawyer and doing a good job, there is no better advertising as word of mouth spreads wildly in provincial New Zealand” says Kirsty Kupa, a partner at DK Legal in Hastings.
There’s also a tendency for clients to stick with the same lawyer. “It’s not just a continuity between the individual and the lawyer, it’s often cross-generational, so it might be that the law firm or even the lawyer has acted for two, possibly three generations within the family,” says Mr Taylor.
The small-city feel also permeates the legal community, says Kirstin Monk, who feels Hawke’s Bay has a supportive, friendly bar. “Everybody really works hard to try and work together and cooperate and resolve matters where possible. It’s not an overly litigious bar, which sounds kind of odd when you’re talking about a bunch of lawyers, but people really work hard to get resolutions for their clients in a way that’s going to work. Because this is a smaller town, you’re going to come across people again, so having pleasant, working relationships for your clients is really important.”
Attracting and retaining staff
President of the Hawke’s Bay branch of the New Zealand Law Society, and partner at boutique law firm Souness Stone, Alison Souness, says the region doesn’t have much trouble attracting graduates. “That’s a function of the law schools pumping out too many lawyers each year and Hawke’s Bay being a lovely place to live,” Ms Souness says.
Regional firms can also offer junior lawyers hands-on, client-facing experience early on in their careers, says Ms Monk. “I think you get a greater diversity of exposure at a junior level than you would at big firms in big centres. You tend to get on your feet pretty quickly here and you’re working quite intensively. But as I’ve said the bar is really supportive, so if you are working in an area that you’re new to, there’s a good level of support locally if you’re stuck on something.”
However, firms can find it hard to attract or retain staff with a few years’ experience. Emma Dawson, also a partner at DK Legal, says some graduates or junior lawyers see working in a regional centre as a stepping stone to their OE or working in a bigger New Zealand city. This can be problematic in a town where clients appreciate continuity. “It doesn’t work for us, because our clients are so loyal. They don’t want their lawyer chopping and changing two or three years down the track, so we don’t have the luxury of employing someone who is not going to be around for the foreseeable future.”
She thinks Hastings is a good move for lawyers with a few more years under their belt, who are looking for a family-friendly place to settle. “We see it as a fantastic place to settle with a family. Our schools are great, the activities you can do on the weekends are great, it’s the perfect option for someone in their 30s and 40s who wants that perfect lifestyle.”
Diversity of clients and work
Alison Souness says the region has a healthy commercial and property bar. “There have some been bumper years in the horticultural and viticultural sectors of late so that has a positive flow on effect to the legal work. The local economy is starting to experience some significant positive traction.”
Local lawyers say there’s a lot of diversity on offer work-wise. “If you’re in a big city you probably don’t get a lot of horticultural, viticultural work. In Hawke’s Bay you do get a broad cross-section of work including rural, commercial and other work,” says Simon Scannell, of SJ Scannell and Co.
Kirsty Kupa says every day is interesting because they are dealing with a wider range of issues than what they might get in a specialised city firm. “You’re working with all sorts of people on an array of issues, which means as a lawyer you continue to grow and challenge yourself.” She adds that working with rural clients requires a flexible attitude, as they aren’t necessarily going to be able to pop into the office for a meeting. In fact, she says, it’s not uncommon for her to drive out to clients’ farms and talk over a cup of tea at the kitchen table.
Ms Kupa once drove more than two hours to the Manawatu town of Bulls to meet a client at the local petrol station. “We need to be flexible and go and see the clients wherever is most convenient for them; that extra effort is one of the reasons our clients are so loyal because we literally will go the extra mile for them.”
The local economy
Hawke’s Bay was hit hard in the 1980s and 1990s by the closures of the Whakatu and Tomoana freezing works. Both had been large employers and stalwarts of the local economy. Since then, Iain Taylor says, the Hawke’s Bay economy has become a lot more robust, with good leadership leading to more economic diversity. “Not only do we have farming and horticulture, we have tourism and viticulture as well. We also have benefitted from an influx of high quality people into Hawke’s Bay.”
That influx includes people who are able to work from home or who have set up small businesses, as well as bigger companies like Kiwibank and Xero who have set up – or are in the process of setting up – regional centres.
Data from Statistics New Zealand shows that Hawke’s Bay’s economy grew 19% between 2010 and 2015, driven by growth in the manufacturing industry and agriculture.
Access to justice
Ms Souness says local lawyers are “really feeling” the impact of changes to resource allocation in the Ministry of Justice. “I know this is a nationwide issue but because Hawke’s Bay has always had a reputation for being an excellent bar with Courts of a really high standard in terms of efficiency of work turnover etc, we have really noticed the change. There are significant delays and real barriers to access to justice despite the hard work of our Judges, the bar and the long- suffering Court staff.”
Ms Souness says Justice Minister Amy Adams inherited some of these challenges. “I’m hopeful that, now that it is apparent where some of the pressure points are, she might change the resourcing model to ease some of the current problems. I really think that has to happen.”
From Hastings to the Privy Council
Working in a regional centre doesn’t preclude involvement in high-profile cases. Ingrid Squire, a partner at Hastings firm Gifford Devine and Jonathan Krebs, a Hawke’s Bay barrister, secured the release of Teina Pora from prison, after taking his case to the Privy Council. Mr Pora was convicted in 1994 of the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett. Mr Krebs and Ms Squire were able to present evidence to the Privy Council that Mr Pora suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome, which made his original confession to the crime unsafe.
The Hastings District is home to around 73,000, making up 1.7% of New Zealand’s total population. Its population ranks 11th out of the 67 districts in New Zealand.
Hastings has 2,188 average annual sunshine hours, and 803mm of average annual rainfall.
In 2015 Hastings was voted New Zealand’s most beautiful city in the annual Keep New Zealand Beautiful Award for a city with a population of 20,000 or more (there were two other entries). It is also home to the best loo in the country, with toilets at the Clifton Road Reserve beating four other entries.
The median house price in Hastings was $355,000 in November, while neighbouring Napier recorded a median price of $389,000. This compares to the national median of $520,000, and a median of $500,000 in Wellington and $851,944 in Auckland.
Formerly branding itself the ‘Fruitbowl of New Zealand’, Hastings now calls itself the ‘Heart of Hawke’s Bay’.