Thirty-six years ago Steve Wong got off a bus in Whangarei carrying just a suitcase. He came to town to take up a job at the law firm Johnson Hooper. Mr Wong hadn’t planned on staying long, but two years down the track he was offered a partnership at the firm and he’s been a local ever since.
In the ensuing decades a succession of mergers has seen the original firm morph into what eventually became Webb Ross McNab Kilpatrick (WRMK). “I started out at Johnson Hooper, then we merged with Webb Ross in 1990, then later on we merged with Thorne Dallas, and then the latest merger was with Urlich McNab Kilpatrick. I’m the last surviving partner from the original firm of Johnson Hooper.”
Mr Wong, who is now a director at WRMK, says building strong networks and relationships is key to a successful legal career. “I always say I’m here for a relationship, not a one night stand, and that’s the guts of it. I don’t want a one-off. I like to know the client, that way you can advise the client properly instead of going in cold.”
Building those relationships can lead to following a family through some of the biggest moments of their lives, then potentially doing the same for their children and grandchildren.
“I’m now into my third generation clients. Some of my children’s friends come to me, and children of other clients. The good thing about Whangarei is you get to act for whole families sometimes.
“Whangarei has been kind to me, my four children are all doing well, with one daughter now working for a leading London law firm.”
In terms of building his business, Mr Wong believes it’s important to work on a point of difference. “Because at the end of the day we’re all selling the same product, so you’ve got to find something to set yourself apart from everyone else.”
In his case, that difference is his Chinese heritage, and he says he’s attracted most of the Asian clientele in Northland. “I’m the Chinese lawyer in the district. I was the northern-most Chinese lawyer in New Zealand, but we’ve just hired some young Chinese guy, so I’m now the oldest, northern-most Chinese lawyer in New Zealand,” he laughs.
Balancing the modern with traditional ways of doing business
Regional practice can still be cutting edge. Mr Wong describes WRMK as a digital office; there are no paper folders and work is carried out electronically. A self-admitted technophobe, Mr Wong was initially against the idea, but has since come around and says he’d never go back. One of the biggest advantages is the ability to work remotely. “Gone are the days where I would come back to the office after dinner and work. I can work in the comfort of my own home and remotely get on with my work and it’s seamless.”
Face-to-face contact is still important though, and Mr Wong believes people rely on email too much. “If you don’t sit down face-to-face with your clients sometimes, you won’t always know what they’re thinking.”
He goes up to the company’s satellite office in Kerikeri once a week, and uses the drive as a chance to connect with clients, often just socially for a cup of tea and a catch-up. “It’s about an hour’s drive, but it takes me much longer because I tend to stop and visit clients on the way up.”
Building a business and a family
Bridget Westenra moved to town with her young family from Auckland 20 years ago, to be closer to her partner’s family. She decided to open her own firm in 2002. At the time she had two-year-old twins, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old. “The idea was to be able to work more realistic hours, but of course that worked in reverse really. Luckily, my partner was home with the kids and we had the grandparents next door.”
Despite the long hours, the ability to forge her own path was appealing. “You can make your own culture in your own office.”
In 2008, she went into partnership with Christina Cook, who is now a judge. In 2014 Megan Wills became a director in the firm, which is now known as Wills Westenra.
Where everybody knows your name
Ms Westenra deals mainly with family law, and says the Family Bar is very strong in Whangarei. “We are all very close and work together very well. We have fairly regular lunchtime get-togethers and seminars where we share ideas. We’ve got to try and get on with each other because we deal with each other all the time.”
Knowing your colleagues and clients well is an advantage of working in a smaller centre, says Mr Wong. “You can get things done quicker because you know people, there’s an element of trust. You can actually go and see somebody and resolve things, rather than go the tortuous way of litigation.”
When it comes to hiring young lawyers, Mr Wong says he prefers to lure locals back to town, rather than outsiders. “That’s simply because they’re more settled, they know the town, their parents are here and they’re here to stay, rather than just coming for a holiday on the firm and then leaving,” he says, before laughingly admitting, “which is what I was going to do when I first came – but 36 years later, I’m still here.”
Gemma Coutts is the kind of young lawyer Mr Wong is talking about. A former head girl of Whangarei Girls’ High School, she moved back to her home town after graduating from Victoria University. She joined the litigation team at Henderson Reeves two years ago, after working for the firm during her university holidays. “In my second to last year at uni I summer clerked at the firm here and absolutely loved it. I was very keen to come back when I graduated.”
She says the move home has been easy. “I have a lot of family up here and have always been reasonably involved in the community, so it was quite nice to come back.”
As well as local ties, the lifestyle was another drawcard. “At the moment, my partner and I are living on the Tutukaka Coast, which is fantastic, and I’m doing a lot of paddle boarding.”