There are plenty of great career opportunities for mid-career lawyers in Whanganui.
Former Auckland lawyer Simon Badger has just been made a partner at Treadwell Gordon, after moving to the city and joining the firm last year. “That was probably a five-year acceleration of what my career opportunities would have been in Auckland I would say,” Mr Badger says.
“It comes with its rewards and responsibilities, but if it’s something you aspire to, then there are definitely opportunities. I think a lot of other firms in the Whanganui region would have the same sort of opportunities on offer and seem to be screaming out for young professionals who have a bit of experience behind them.
“You look at the profession in Whanganui and there are a lot of people who have been in the profession for a while, then there are a lot who are straight out of university and there is a bit of a hole in between. For people who fit in the middle, there are big opportunities.”
Decent career opportunities are also on offer for junior lawyers. Stacey Hyland, who graduated in 2014, is part of Dewhirst Law which opened in 2015, and is looking to work her way up the ranks. She says it’s rare for new firms to open in Whanganui so she jumped at the opportunity to be part of a start-up.
“Firms will combine and rebrand, but for a whole new firm to go out and start is very uncommon.
“I jumped at it with arms wide open because it’s just so different. Michael Dewhirst is our principal and he has told us that he’s set us up for us to grow and work our way up to partner in the firm. I think it’s a really good thing, you have the opportunity to try what you like and build that practice.”
Attracting lawyers to town
Getting lawyers to forsake bigger cities for a smaller centre isn’t easy, but family connections and relationships are probably the best lure, says John Unsworth, a partner at Horsley Christie and also Vice-President of the Whanganui branch of the New Zealand Law Society and a former NZLS Vice-President (North Island). “If you can get people who have grown up here or have connections here, it’s easier to attract them back and to hold on to them, particularly if they are at that nesting stage.”
Mr Unsworth moved to Whanganui more than 30 years ago and says it was a mixture of interesting work and the people that made him stay. He enjoys the community aspect of living in a smaller city. “You settle into the community, you form relationships and friendships and life is easy. I’ve stayed here because of relationships and the ease of the city. I don’t feel that my practice has been restricted by virtue of practising in a regional city.”
It was family that brought Simon Badger to Whanganui. “My wife was from here. Her family has a farm and she has always aspired to be a farmer and help out on the farm.”
Stacey Hyland grew up in Whanganui, but moved away to study and work, and didn’t intend to settle back in her hometown. “I lived in Australia for a few years, so the intention was to move back there.” Instead, she “got side-tracked” when she met her Whanganui-based partner and decided to stick around.
There are obvious advantages to being a big fish in a small pond – such as a much-reduced commute. After spending the best part of two hours getting to and from work each day while living in Auckland, Mr Badger now takes about 24 minutes in total. “I have around 10 hours a week that I didn’t have otherwise so I have a huge amount of spare time. I have started getting into organised sports again, things like cricket and rugby, which I had to give away in Auckland because I didn’t have the time.”
Ms Hyland also appreciates the work/life balance on offer, which allows her to spend plenty of time with her partner and his children as well as enjoy the great outdoors. “You’ve got your beaches, mountains, the river, bushwalks and all sorts of things to do outside of work, so you really do get your work/life balance.”
Mr Unsworth says the legal work in Whanganui is of high quality, calling it both challenging and broad. “It has ticked the boxes of what I wanted to achieve and what I have seen being done by peers throughout New Zealand. My work is litigation, so I come across practitioners from the bigger cities and the bigger firms, and we do the same sort of things that they do.”
Ms Hyland enjoys the general nature of the work on offer. “As it’s a small town you get a broad range of work, you have to be flexible and you also have the ability to experience different areas of law.”
The small-town environment is also positive when it comes to building relationships with colleagues and clients. “Because everyone knows everyone in one way or another, you can strike up a connection with people which helps to build good relationships with people, whether they are your clients or other professionals around town.”
There’s also a collegial feel amongst local lawyers, particularly young lawyers who might be new to the city. “We’ve got a young lawyers group and have monthly drinks and catch up with everyone,” says Ms Hyland.
Whanganui has always been a city that doesn’t have huge economic highs or lows, according to Mr Unsworth. “It ticks along in a positive manner. Practitioners, because they are broad-based, generally keep going, keep their people occupied and stay successful in practice.”