New Zealand Law Society - British whodunnits deliver human dimension

British whodunnits deliver human dimension

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Michael Stephens
Michael Stephens

Between acting for many in the film and television industry and getting public art onto the street, Wellington entertainment lawyer Michael Stephens turns his hand to restoring old houses.

“At law school I worked as a painter in the university holidays and that’s when I got my interest in restoration.

“I have an interest in old buildings and restoring old houses, and we are restoring our own home - one of the original old farmhouses in Wadestown [Wellington], which dates back to 1868.

“I do some of the work myself and also use tradesmen. It is an ongoing restoration.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would probably be restoring old buildings. I like to see us cherish the history and craftmanship. Over the years we have restored at least half a dozen houses. It’s a lot of work but completely satisfying.”

Michael George Cantrick (Michael) Stephens
Entry to law
Graduated BA, LLB from Victoria University. Admitted in 1981.
Director at Stephens Lawyers, Wellington.
Speciality area
Film, entertainment and general commercial law.

A former member of the Film and Literature Board of Review - the appeals body for New Zealand’s film and media censorship system - Michael recently joined the board of the Urban Art Foundation Ltd, which operates as the not-for-profit Urban Art Agency, committed to making art accessible on streets and in public gateways.

“Urban Arts was established by advertising, television and film producer Andrew Hagen. The concept is to get art from out of the galleries and onto the street because only a fraction of New Zealand art is seen.

“I think it is a brilliant idea, and it also creates a more immersive and interesting urban environment. On my recent return trip to Auckland it was a delight to see an art exhibition up on the digital screens at Wellington airport.”

Michael’s practice involves working with creative clients in the film, television and animation businesses as well as artists. “I can’t disclose any big names, for a number of reasons, but we have acted for a number of well-known people.

“It’s never dull, I can definitely say that. I provide pro bono legal advice to The Outlook for Someday youth film challenge, and that provides some of the most interesting legal issues.”

Korean film

With a long involvement with the Order of St John, he currently serves on the Wellington area committee of St John.

Michael’s interest in film means he travels extensively, primarily in East Asia.

“I act as honorary advisor to several film festivals between New Zealand and China and also chair the Korean Film Festival where we have an annual film festival in Auckland and also screenings in Wellington.

“I was chair of the Korea New Zealand Business Council some years ago so became interested in the film sector through that. Fifteen years ago a group of us, including Melissa Lee MP, set up the Korean Cinerama Trust of New Zealand – a film festival trust.

“Our favourite holiday spot is Hawke’s Bay. My wife and I met after university but we both spent our early childhood in Hawke’s Bay and we have been taking our children back there.

“I do not play any instruments and have a passive enjoyment of a range of music, especially local jazz bands such as Wellington’s High Society jazz swing band, who are very good.

“I read historical fiction extensively, particularly the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. I read a lot around media, film and business and follow Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell and American writer Tim Ferris.

“My taste in film is more historic and costume drama, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I very much like TV whodunnits and consume a lot of British police programmes.

“Taggart, Morse, Midsomer Murders, Endeavour, Brenda Blethyn in Vera and David Jason in Frost has a very human dimension. The British do drama very well – but Peaky Blinders is a bit too violent for me.

“I try to see as much of New Zealand film-makers and actors as I can. Heavenly Creatures, the Peter Jackson directed thriller about the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder in Christchurch, is my favourite New Zealand film. We have some remarkable film-makers here.

“One of the things I do is help select films for film festivals and recommend them internationally. Last year we took eight feature films to China.

“The film we gave two premieres to in China was Pork Pie, by Matt Murphy. It had all the elements the Chinese seem to like - romance, action, comedy and drama.”

Dinner would be Savage and Lean

“I was attracted to law by the amalgam of history and service. To be a trusted professional is quite lovely. We have a number of clients where we act for three generations of families. It’s interesting to watch family dynamics. And it is good to be able to help people through various things in life.

“Our brother and sister cats, Apollo and Fleur, who are getting on a bit and are of no particular breed, dominate the house.

“My very practical Nissan XTrail SUV (I’ve had four) is good for carting things around and getting to an off-grid cabin we have with some friends in Akatarawa Valley.

“Michael Joseph Savage would be my first choice of dinner guest, and film director David Lean. One of the films that made the most profound effect on me as a young schoolboy was David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. That was an outstanding film.

“I’m a barbecue person and I like Middle Eastern food and Korean barbecue so I would cook. And serve New Zealand pinot gris.

“It’s difficult to specify a memorable career moment because of client confidentiality, but many years ago I had a creative client who got themselves in a spot of bother with the IRD.

“We managed, with a skilled accountant, to get the IRD to terminate the proceedings. We made an arrangement, which our client completed. When he completed the arrangement he said ‘you have basically given me my life back’. So I have always been mindful of the stress that litigation puts people under.

“I also recently worked with a very good family barrister and we finally terminated a couple of proceedings which in both cases I think lifted the stress from the clients. I always try to explore non-court option when there is a dispute, particularly commercial disputes.

“I am no litigator - I do a lot of commercial negotiation and try where ever possible to keep clients out of court.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at

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