It is hard to attract experienced young lawyers to Timaru, and to make matters worse, the pool isn’t great for someone looking for a soulmate to keep them in the South Canterbury centre.
While recent law graduates will grab anything going, finding lawyers with two or three years’ experience is difficult, says Anne-Marie McRae, who works in the Crown team at Gresson Dorman, alongside her husband and Crown Solicitor, Andrew McRae.
But if you want to settle, raise a family, enjoy a broad general practice and have a clearer pathway to partnership, most local lawyers say Timaru and South Canterbury is an ideal spot to do so.
Born and bred Cantabrians who did their law degrees at Canterbury University, the McRaes are “imports” from Christchurch who moved to Timaru in 2009 to further Andrew’s career prospects.
“Andrew was looking to the future, knowing that long-serving Crown Solicitor Tim Gresson was heading towards retirement. The opportunity arose and Andrew went in as an associate, became partner and applied for the Crown warrant when Tim was ready to resign,” says Anne-Marie, who represents South Canterbury on the Canterbury-Westland branch of the New Zealand Law Society.
Initially, Anne-Marie worked in another firm, but says it became too difficult for her to do defence work against the Crown team of Tim and Andrew “so I had to go and join them, otherwise the conflicts were arising frequently”.
She says the main attractions in Timaru are the ease of getting to the office and parking – a sentiment echoed by other practitioners, many of whom are also “imports”.
Anne-Marie says lawyers get right into the work they would like to do. “We employed a couple of juniors in the Crown team and they were able to come in and get a whole array of work, whereas if they were in a bigger centre they would start off with the lower end work, such as sentencing and appeals.”
“Here, you can get straight into junioring on trials, even a murder trial. We are such a small team we get that array of work.
“It’s the same working in the commercial team and because there are limited numbers you get to do a bit of everything and get to build a general practice if you want, as well as specialise.”
Anne-Marie, who has a school-age child and a toddler, says it is easy to balance work and family life mainly because there is no large distance travelling to and from work. “I can walk out of the office, get in my car and get home easy.”
“We have other lawyers in the firm who have children and they manage to juggle everything. Most of us are part-time to a degree. I’m three to four days a week but still do a full week in that time.”
Plenty of schools
She says Timaru has plenty of primary schools and most are now zoned because of the influx of numbers, and there are five high schools.
“If you are a sporty person we have amazing sports facilities here, including the spectacular Caroline Bay Aquatic Centre. There are great facilities for basketball, netball, hockey, cricket and tennis.
“Andrew and I were about 30 when we came here and we knew our next step was family. We have managed to immerse ourselves in the community both through activities we have got involved in and have met friends through our children.
“Maybe the younger people can’t see that yet.”
Andrew’s busy Crown warrant covers the area between Rakaia in the north, Ashburton, Methven, Twizel, Tekapo, Oamaru and Hampden, south of Oamaru.
Outside Crown work business is basically around conveyancing, merger, commercial, family, relationship property, care of children and employment. Resource management work suffered a blow with the death in a bicycle accident this year of resource management partner Jane Walsh, who was building up a good RMA practice with Georgina Hamilton.
“One comment we had from a Timaru born and bred person who we thought might want to come back, said they were not ready to come back yet. They still wanted to be in a big city and maybe find their soulmate because the pool for that in Timaru isn’t great.”
Undiscovered gem and rural idyll
Timpany Walton partner Alice Caird describes Timaru as an undiscovered gem.
Originally from Taumarunui, Alice came to Timaru for her first job after graduating from Otago University and has been with the same firm for 21 years.
“In my time here there has been a big increase in the basic three-bed brick home you used to be able to buy for $200,000. It’s now around $300,000 to $350,000, but still really affordable.”
Alice defied the logic by meeting her future husband a few months after arriving in Timaru and the couple have daughters aged 11 and nine.
They live on a small farm near Otipua, on the outskirts of Timaru, which her husband looks after. Their children attend the local rural school and the family are into the outdoors. “I live in the countryside and can drive to work in 15 minutes – that’s great,” says Alice.
“It’s going to be tough to balance family and work no matter where you are, but here, if the kids have assembly or something on at school, it is easier to get in your car and be away for an hour for lunch, and be back.
“In Auckland or Christchurch it could take half an hour to get out of your own street.
“I wouldn’t be able to park right outside my favourite shop. There is scope for you to have family life, get involved in the community and go home for lunch if you wanted to.
“At the same time we have a pretty good standard of legal work and a lot of interesting businesses doing fantastic things here. There is a lot of scope for good work as well as having a reasonable lifestyle.
“Scope for specialisation and niche work isn’t quite so great here as it would be in a bigger place. But with technology changing all the time you can be here and still connect to wherever. There are practitioners who work here but are an outpost of a firm in Ashburton or Christchurch.”
She says her partners have been generally supportive and accommodating of her having a family, which has been appreciated. “But it has its own challenges and consequences for your career.”
Hard to find a downside
Like other lawyers, Alice says it is hard to find a downside in Timaru, apart from the ability to get to some bigger events, concerts and cultural things in bigger cities.
“But we have the Caroline Bay carnival, the Theatre Royal and the outdoors.”
Timaru lawyers generally miss a broader professional interaction but say there is a good local collegial atmosphere and socialising is about to be cranked up.
And while some Timaru firms trace their roots back between 100 and 150 years, Alice says it is also important to be future focused and have a progressive feel as well.
While she is not a litigator, Alice says having a new courthouse and a resident judge has been great for the profession and the justice system.
“It is good that we still have retained the facility here so we still have High Court jury trials. It’s good for the Bar.”
Home for lunch and finish work early
RSM Law director David Forman moved to Timaru in 2005 from Hamilton because his wife wanted to be closer to her family and with one young child he was attracted to a smaller town.
“Less traffic and more time. I can pop home for lunch most days, finish not long after 5 and go mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding, all close to Timaru.
“There’s less civil litigation here but we do more general legal work than you would otherwise and that’s a positive for some of us,” David says.
He spends little time in court but the firm has criminal and family lawyers in Timaru’s busy court frequently.
“Timaru is reasonably attractive for some practitioners who have a young family. But it is difficult to attract the two to six-year post qualification lawyers. They are generally at an age where they would rather be in the big cities.
“But once we have staff past that age, and if they have families, they put down roots and stick around.
“Timaru is well serviced for facilities, with excellent high schools and sporting and recreational facilities. Dunedin and Christchurch are just a couple of hours away if you want to go to see something.”
Like most smaller communities, lawyers are often asked to get involved in local community affairs in various honorary positions. Among other things David advises the local branch of the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association “but I am not a hunting man”.
“The only downside is if you had a particular interest in legal work in a specialised area then you would struggle to find that work here,” David says.
“You are out on a limb a bit from the profession and you tend not to go to some distant seminars, but then, I wanted to come here so I do not see too many negatives.”
David says the reality for a lawyer coming to a smaller town and a smaller firm – and it being more difficult for law firms to attract staff – means there is a clearer pathway to partnership for those lawyers.
“There is less competition so the pathway to become a business owner is a lot easier.”
An Englishman abroad
“There was a job here so I thought, why not go to Timaru?” says Englishman Paul Tyler, who moved from Whakatane in 2010 and this year took over Aoraki Legal with Pauline-Jean Luyten, a born and bred Timaruvian.
Paul and his partner Vicki McConnochie live in what he describes as a big, rambling house next to Timaru’s Aigantighe Art Gallery, and four minutes from his office.
“We are flat out. And have gone from nine to 12 staff since April, when we took over the firm, and now have to take on another one, maybe two,” he says.
The firm deals predominantly with elder law, estates, conveyancing and employment law, with little court work and no legal aid work.
“It is quite difficult to attract lawyers and we are also fussy. We have had a lot of applicants and I have been very disappointed with the grammar. I’m quite hot on this. If you can’t write I can’t teach you, it’s too late. I can teach you law. We are not going to take on just anyone.”
He says keeping younger experienced lawyers is hard because they often do a couple of years work, do their OE and then get grabbed to work elsewhere.
“There has been a lot of movement between local law firms in the last year, which has left some firms short of staff, but we are about right at the moment.
Puzzles at tea break
“We employ people who have got to be happy. If we don’t get the feeling they are happy people we would not employ them because we have a group of happy people here. We play puzzles at tea break and have a communal puzzle.
“One of the best things about living in Timaru is house prices. It’s outrageous what sort of house you can get here. Half a million dollars gets me a 1500 square metre section and a 3,000 square foot house next to an art gallery. You can earn good money but don’t need as much as Auckland.
“Vicki and I like socialising, mixing and mingling. I’m a member of the South Canterbury Club, and I like going to work.”
Paul’s business partner Pauline-Jean Luyten and her Welsh husband Steve have three children under six and make the sharing of work and family duties work.
Because of the four-hour return trip Paul says Timaru misses out on some collegial events in Christchurch, but local lawyers are big on webinars, especially to keep up with continuing legal education.
And in November Timaru’s representative on the Canterbury Westland branch of the New Zealand Law Society – Anne-Marie McRae – organised the first social get-together for some time, hoping they will become regular gatherings.
(Sources: Timaru District Council, New Zealand Law Society).
Semi-retired freelance journalist and lawyer profiler Jock Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org is happy to have settled in Timaru.
Timaru at a glance
The Timaru urban area is home to about 30,000 folk, and rising quietly. The Timaru district includes Temuka, Pleasant Point and Geraldine, giving a total combined population of more than 47,000.
Timaru is an agricultural service town, the second largest fishing port in New Zealand, and one of the major cargo ports of the South Island, with a number of light manufacturing plants associated with the export and import trade. Many of these producers are involved with processing, packing and distributing meat, dairy and other agricultural produce.
Caroline Bay beach is popular with holiday-makers and is the venue for many community events, including the now annual Rock and Hop car festival, which raises about $80,000 for the South Canterbury Hospice.
The Caroline Bay Carnival, from Boxing Day to mid-January, features live performances, games and side shows.
Timaru also boasts New Zealand’s largest inline speed roller-skating teams and a purpose-built $1 million track.
Famous Timaruvians include pianist Michael Houston, pioneering aviator Richard Pearse, shotputter Tom Walsh, runner Jack Lovelock, boxer Bob Fitzsimmons, poet Alan Curnow, author Owen Marshall, Cardinal Reginald Delargey, broadcaster Phillip Leishman, rally driver Hayden Paddon, swimmer Danyon Loader and a racehorse called Phar Lap.
Timaru currently has one resident District Court Judge, Judge Joanna Maze, who also sits in Ashburton. Circuit judges also sit in the District Court and the High Court is serviced by judges from Christchurch.
Timaru has 58 lawyers of whom 30 are female. Temuka has two and Geraldine one. Waimate now has no permanent lawyers and is serviced by RSM Law from Timaru.