New Zealand Law Society - A lifetime devotion to the legal profession: Graham Bentley’s reflection in the development of the legal practice

A lifetime devotion to the legal profession: Graham Bentley’s reflection in the development of the legal practice

A lifetime devotion to the legal profession: Graham Bentley’s reflection in the development of the legal practice

A retiree who has recently farewelled an almost 50 years’ career in the legal profession, Graham Bentley reviewed his 41 years as the CFO of Chapman Tripp and how he embraced the opportunity to transition into an inspector role at the Law Society.

Born in the Hutt Valley, and still a resident there, Graham qualified as a Chartered Accountant. He completed a bachelor’s degree of Commerce and Administration (BCA) at Victoria University in the 1960s by attending evening lectures from 5pm each day, while working for the Reserve Bank during the daytime. In those days the Reserve bank operated as a trading bank for all government departments and Graham spent his first years in the banking office side and completing his final three years in the internal audit section. He has a few seconds fame in the film which documented the change to decimal currency in July 1967 and remembers well the unusual fortnightly Friday job of burning old bank notes as they were taken out of circulation. Graham left the Reserve Bank, where he was on a salary of $4,500 pa, in February 1972 to join Chapman Tripp’s accounting team at a salary of $6,000 pa.   

The start of an exceptionally interesting career

To set the scene in 1972, Graham remembers that many still used fountain pens as biro/ballpoint pens hadn’t completely taken over. “IBM golf ball typewriters were being introduced to replace manual typewriters, document copies were via carbon paper inserts, telephone system involved the telephonist to connect cables to the various extensions, accounting records were kept on large machine cards, and yes in summer I went to work in my shorts, with knee high socks, short sleeve shirt and tie,” he adds.

41 years at Chapman Tripp was never expected as Graham initially only planned to stay for three years. He was originally hired to run the firm’s accounting team, act as HR for non-legal staff, pay weekly salaries (all cash in small brown envelopes in those days), look after general administration of the firm, and to produce financial accounting statements for the family trusts associated with many of the firm’s clients.

“Every day was different and I can honestly say I was never bored,” he says. During 1973 Chapman Tripp was the pioneer in Australasia to install a computer for its accounting system, mainly to introduce time recording to have better control on work in progress, billing, trust accounting and practice management reporting. “The computer was a PDP 11/10 from memory, had its own room, false floor and air-conditioning and changeable disks drives,” Graham recalls. He was the primary person in charge of the implementation. After spending many days in Christchurch for programming and testing, it finally went live on 1 April 1974 and some of the large Australian firms visited afterwards to see what the firm had achieved with the first practice management system in Australasia. 

Around this time the firm also installed its first word processing machine and was the first entity in NZ (other than the Post Office) to have a facsimile machine albeit with its rolls of thermal paper. Graham was also the first person in Chapman Tripp to have a PC that cost $16,000 at the time but he had to firstly submit a thick report explaining why he should have one. During his time at Chapman Tripp, Graham put in two further practice managements systems and spent his last 18 months involved with installing the current system, for which his responsibility was the reporting suite.

During his time at Chapman Tripp he encouraged the young accounting staff to study towards accounting qualification, mentoring them, and was proud to see some complete their qualifications.

An opportunity arose at the right time

A month after ending his journey with Chapman Tripp, Graham saw the advertisement from the Law Society for an Inspector role and applied for it. He was 68 then. This was driven from his motivation to maintain personal interaction with others and comradeship, particularly younger generations, and to pass on knowledge he had gained from his 41 years at Chapman Tripp to smaller firms. He was particularly committed in educating firms around procedures and processes associated with the operation of a trust account as well as the wider general operation of a legal practice. 

The first inspection on his own took place in February 2014. He noticed that very few firms had properly documented their accounting procedures, processes, and policies. Where there is no documentation the induction of new employees can be hit and miss, and there is no base to refer to if a review of existing procedures, processes and policies is required.  Without proper documentation many administrators keep personal hand-written notes which they use to teach others, who in turn write their own notes and so on. Overtime even if there were originally good processes and procedures, they became watered-down. “I soon realised how lucky I was to have worked in the large firm environment and the enormous gap between that and the medium/smaller firms,” Graham says.

“A sole practitioner may not require a fully documented manual of processes and procedures, but they do need to have sufficient documentation so that if they are knocked over by a bus on the way to work their attorney could immediately come in and pick up their operation.”

One of the highlights for Graham was being able to visit law firms to have open discussions on findings and other general operational matters, along with the almost compulsory morning teas. He truly valued the opportunity to interact with the practitioners and assist them to run their businesses sustainably.

An advocate for a more effective trust accounting system

“If there’s one change that I would love to see in the profession, it would be the trust accounting system that the majority of New Zealand firms use,” he says. Back in the 1960s a trust accounting system came into existence via those selling ledger card machines. The system is referred to as the “combined ledger” system and is only seen in New Zealand. As time evolves, it has made the accounting and reporting structure more complicated for little, or no gain. It would be more effective if the “combined ledger” system was phased out and firms returned to the use of separate ledger systems which account for all fees and disbursements in the office/general ledger, and no mingling of client trust funds with those of the firm.

Graham also suggests that the use of the manual trust ledger system should be phased out and replaced with electronic cloud-based systems, especially now there are affordable options available in the market. The cost of setting up an electronic accounting system not only significantly outweighs the time taken in recording the trust transactions manually, but also has the added advantages of automatic reconciliations and compliance reporting. 

A new focus in life

Graham is now fully retired and spending a lot more time doing outdoor activities. He is now part of a walking group which mostly walk the many hill trails that Wellington and district is blessed with. He also recently took on a voluntary position on the Board of SuperGrans Aotearoa Charitable Trust focussing on its financial operation.

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