New Zealand Law Society - Focus on Whakatane

Focus on Whakatane

Focus on Whakatane
Whakatane’s ‘Lady on the Rock’ with Whale Island (Motuhora) in the background. Photo by ‘Chris Thompson’, CC-By

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Whakatane lawyer David Sparks says the local law fraternity was very tightknit when he moved there 44 years ago. As a newcomer to the Eastern Bay of Plenty town he was taken around all the law firms and introduced to all the other local lawyers – a tradition at the time to welcome all new lawyers. “Everybody knew each other,” says Mr Sparks. “We were obviously on opposite sides in court from time to time, but nevertheless we were all good friends.”

He says at the time the firms also had regular inter-firm meetings, a tradition that has since fallen by the wayside. “They were sort of semi-social occasions, where we would catch up with each other’s news but also discuss issues of the moment.”

It wasn’t just the social side of law that was different in the 1970s, there was also a different court system in place. “We were back in the old Magistrates Court days then. The magistrate would usually come for about two and a half days a month, although later that was expanded. The thing about that was everything else had to be dropped. Of course, in those days we didn’t have a Family Court, so family matters got dealt with in the Magistrates Court, along with criminal and civil and everything else.”

The days of newcomers being taken around the town’s law firms for meet and greets ended about “20-odd years ago” says criminal lawyer Gene Tomlinson, who remembers doing the rounds when he moved to Whakatane in 1996. “The last time I remember somebody being brought around and introduced was in the late 1990s,” says Mr Tomlinson, who is now a director at Gowing & Co.

However, there is still a collegial feel to the legal community, according to Emily Stannard, who recently moved to Whakatane to join Robinson Law. “The bar is really congenial and everyone knows everyone because it’s a small town. All the senior lawyers are willing to help you out.”

Ms Stannard grew up in Wellington and says she didn’t expect to end up living outside of one of the main centres. “I never thought I’d move to a small town, I thought I’d be in Wellington or Auckland, but I’m really liking Whakatane.”

Community spirit

Living in a smaller town leads to plenty of opportunities to get immersed in the community. David Sparks is a trustee of a local rest home and on the management committee of a budget advisory service. “Those sorts of things are just part and parcel of being in a small community.”

On top of that, he works part-time as a senior solicitor at Baywide Community Law Service and enjoys the variety of working in community law. “It is really great, particularly for older lawyers like me, because it takes us back to basics and you never know what sort of issue might present from day to day. We can be called on to advise on anything and everything.”

Small towns also tend to lead to loyal clients. Peter Attewell, a partner at Osborne Attewell Clews, has worked in Whakatane for 35 years. He says clients tend to stick with their lawyer or law firm. “I’m now seeing my early clients’ grandchildren, who I’m introducing to the younger members of the firm.”

The wider legal community

Mr Tomlinson is a committee member of the Waikato Bay of Plenty branch of the New Zealand Law Society, which he says is the biggest geographic branch in the country. “We have three High Court registries within there – Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua – and geographically we go all the way from up Huntly way over to the East Cape, and down to Turangi. It’s huge.”

He says the committee is trying to help lawyers who might be geographically isolated to feel connected and represented, by doing things like holding meetings via teleconference rather than have members drive for hours to attend a meeting in person.

Tightknit firms

View of Whakatane waterfront
Whakatane waterfront.

According to Law Society data there are just 40 lawyers in Whakatane. This means firms tend to really look after decent staff – sometimes to the point of putting them through law school. Debbie Kennedy started work at Buddle Bentley McCleary as a legal secretary in 2004. She went on to complete her legal executive studies in 2009. “I had never, ever contemplated being a lawyer whilst I was working as a legal secretary or legal executive.”

However, the partners at Buddle Bentley McCleary encouraged her to pursue an LLB, pointing out that in her role as a legal executive she was already doing a lot of the type of work of a solicitor. The firm provided financial assistance for the degree, plus the promise of a job at the end of it. “I was very lucky. I know a lot of the people I studied with still don’t have legal jobs.”

Fast-tracked careers

Being part of a small pool of lawyers can also lead to big opportunities fairly early on in a career. “I had my first appearance in the Court of Appeal 18 months after I started working, and did my first jury trial at around 21 months,” says Gene Tomlinson. “My employer, now my partner, said to me at the time that it was five or six years before he first appeared at the Court of Appeal and it was more daunting as a consequence of that delay, so it was a good idea to get down there and do it as soon as possible.”

Lifestyle benefits

The lifestyle on offer in Whakatane is a big attraction for lawyers, says Mr Attewell. “Practising in Whakatane is all about lifestyle. That’s why we’re here.” He says big game fishing is a popular pastime, although not one he partakes in. “I’ve tried it, but unfortunately I get seasick, so I took up golf instead.”

The work/life balance for lawyers is also appealing. Prior to moving to Whakatane, Ms Kennedy worked for a law firm in Auckland and saw the long hours that were expected at a big city firm. ““When I worked in Auckland as a legal secretary, there were a lot of graduate and junior lawyers who worked until all hours. Again, I’m lucky, whilst the partners expect you to work hard, they don’t expect you to work unreasonable hours. They place a high onus on you to be able to manage your own workload and if your workload dictates that you work extra hours then so be it. My bosses are very understanding. They know I have a young family so they don’t expect me to be here until all hours, seven days a week.