New Zealand Law Society - Focus on law practice in Palmerston North

Focus on law practice in Palmerston North

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Palmerston North has welcomed a lot of new lawyers in recent years, but a fresh approach is needed to consistently attract new talent to the town, according to Crown Solicitor Ben Vanderkolk.

The clock tower in central Palmerston North
The clocktower in the centre of 'The Square',
the urban focalpoint of Palmerston North.
Photo by 'Naoki Sato', CC-By-SA

Mr Vanderkolk, who is the New Zealand Law Society’s Manawatu branch President, moved to Palmerston North in 1983 to take up a position with the city’s then-Crown Solicitor David McKegg. Since then he’s seen the local legal landscape undergo numerous changes.

In the 1980s there were a succession of mergers and partnership dissolutions that led to sole practitioners dominating Palmerston North’s legal community. But in the 1990s that growth stalled.

“It was dominated by two big firms, a lesser number of mid-sized firms and a large number of sole practitioners,” Mr Vanderkolk says.

But he says that, in the past five years, the city’s legal profession has been revitalised.

“I have seen in the past few years a significant number of young people being taken on by firms. I think there are a number of people who were very strong lawyers in the 80s who are now getting close to retirement or are retiring from practice, so they are changing gear personally or changing their firms.”

Attracting lawyers

Despite the changing of the guard Mr Vanderkolk says it’s still a challenge to attract young lawyers and graduates to Manawatu. In the past he says local firms were not well set up to take on graduates and were reluctant to invest time and money on training programmes for junior lawyers who they felt would just leave after gaining some experience.

“I think that’s changing now though. I think that graduate lawyers are now insisting that employers have professional development programmes tailored for them. Young lawyers want to know what their future looks like and they want to know where they are going to be in three to five years. I also think that lawyers in the Manawatu have also come to accept that these talented young people will move on and we just need to be in a position to keep replacing them. Young lawyers are very mobile and they see their career paths in short-term chunks.”

Innes Dean Tararua Law Ltd Associate Melissa Bourke moved to Palmerston North with her husband and family six years ago and says they have never regretted the move.

A bridge over the Manawatu River
Fitzherbert Bridge is Palmerston North's only bridge
over the Manawatu River.
Photo by ‘Russell Street’, CC-By

“Wellington is a special city but we can breathe here. I have left commuting (it literally takes me five minutes from home to work) and high house prices behind and embraced the wide open spaces: biking along the Manawatu River with the kids and the dogs, tramping through the bush along the Manawatu Gorge Tawa Loop Track, blueberry picking at Pohangina. There is a real sense of community in Palmy that you just don’t get in the bigger cities – our children run between our house and their friends’ houses in our neighbourhood or meet at the school pool for a picnic dinner.”

Sam Rowe, a partner at Fitzherbert Rowe, says while it can be tough to attract new lawyers to the city, those that do are not always in a hurry to leave. “Getting people here is the hard part, but once they’re here and they experience living here, then they do tend to stay.”

A premium for newcomers?

Paying a premium for out-of-towners is one possible solution to attract new talent, says Ben Vanderkolk.

“I think that local law firms, while they generally make good incomes, really struggle to pay what they need to in order to attract people to the province. That does require a premium, especially a province like the Manawatu which doesn’t have the inherent lifestyle attractions like Hawke’s Bay or Bay of Plenty. You need to be prepared to pay an attraction premium as part of the remuneration package. That said, the Manawatu is progressive, a great place to do business, be entrepreneurial, and for lawyers and their young families, provides first class schools at all levels of education.”

Lawyers practising in Palmerston North by gender and year of admission

The lifestyle on offer in Palmerston North is a definite attraction for lawyers, particularly those with young children. “It’s a lot easier to get that work-life balance here when it only takes two minutes to get to and from work. You can put in a full day of work at the office but still see your children in the morning and at night – even at lunchtime if you want to go home for lunch. They’re only little for a short time, so being able to get that extra time with them for me is pretty important,” says Mr Rowe.

Melissa Bourke says she is given the flexibility and support she needs to advance her career in addition to maintaining her family and other personal commitments.

“I am blessed to have very supportive leaders in my work life who have recognised my skills and encouraged my career progression while also recognising my need to be a part of my community and spend quality time with my family. They have supported me in building a strong elder law and general practice in Palmerston North and have provided me with the mentors and guidance I needed to succeed. They have offered me flexible working arrangements and valued the entire contribution I make to our firm. The balance I have also allows me time to give back to the local profession and this means I have been able to serve as a representative on the Law Society Manawatu branch Council.”

Mrs Bourke says working outside the main centres provides lawyers with a greater opportunity for a diverse and broader range of work from graduate level.

“There are plenty of opportunities here right now for lawyers of all levels,” she says. “I’ve found my work challenging and interesting and would recommend any lawyer thinking about a move to somewhere smaller to just do it and embrace life as it was meant to be.”

Legal Aid Changes

Michelle Woods, a partner at WinterWoods Lawyers, says although there are firms employing new solicitors, there has been little new growth in the Criminal and Family Bar. If anything, these are shrinking. “Part of it is natural attrition with people retiring. There are few new people coming through and I think that in large part is due to legal aid changes.”

She says changes to the way legal aid is funded makes it difficult for new practitioners to break into criminal or family law. “It can be difficult, and I suspect it’s a nationwide problem, particularly in the provinces. Getting approved as a Legal Aid Provider for litigation purposes is now probably a disincentive for firms to employ those who have an interest in that sort of work, simply because you’re uneconomic until such time as you’re approved.

“Rightly or wrongly, the sense firms have is that once someone is approved as a provider they’re off looking for better and brighter opportunities”.

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