New Zealand Law Society - Escaping troubled Ireland for the world of Silk and a honeymoon “reccy”

Escaping troubled Ireland for the world of Silk and a honeymoon “reccy”

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Sarah Wroe
Sarah Wroe

Growing up in Northern Ireland at the height of the violent sectarian Troubles was hard to shake off for hockey blue Sarah Wroe when she first studied at Cambridge University.

“In Ireland your handbag was checked at every shop. The first year I was at university in England I was still showing security guards my handbag on the way into shops. Then suddenly I remembered I wasn’t in Belfast,” says Sarah, a barrister specialising in property and insurance litigation, who recently joined Eldon Chambers in Auckland.

“Since then I’ve missed all the ‘improvements’ in Northern Ireland, shall we say.”

Sarah Elizabeth (Sarah) Wroe
Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and grew up in County Down.
Entry to law
Graduated First Class (MA) in Law from Cambridge University in 1997, admitted to the Bar of England and Wales in 1998, followed by eight years in practice in England.Admitted in New Zealand in 2011.
Barrister in Eldon Chambers, Auckland.
Speciality area
Property and Insurance litigation.

With her family still living in Northern Ireland but not wanting to go back there, and England not being her home, Sarah met and married English business consultant Ian Wroe – who had lived and worked all over the world.

“There’s not a great deal of fondness for English people in Northern Ireland and we both wanted to come somewhere different. Ian had worked in Australia, so we came to New Zealand on our honeymoon, did a reccy, and decided we enjoyed the lifestyle.”

The couple came to New Zealand from Bristol, where Sarah was working, in 2006, but not before she had established herself for some years as a barrister and getting more than 100 jury trials under her belt.

Born in County Antrim and raised in County Down, she did her schooling in Northern Ireland in arts and languages, including Latin to A levels.

“My Mum was a teacher but she came from a generation where she was given the option of being a nurse or a teacher. She would have quite liked to be a vet but that was not what the family supported, it was not allowed. Dad was an engineer.”

Sarah’s uncle Philip Boyd was a successful police detective in Belfast, where he did undercover work fighting terrorists. He had 16 commendations for bravery but died at 52, two weeks after he retired. “He had a massive funeral, it was very touching.”

First class 

“I was attracted to law by the logical thought processes involved. Having to solve a problem and support how you solved it. As you get more experience a lot of that is trusting your instinct and figuring out how to reach the solution that matches your instinct.”

Winning a prestigious scholarship, Sarah got into Cambridge University - to Christ’s College. “I enjoyed that. I did a few criminal justice options in Cambridge papers, tort and European law, and graduated with a first class degree.

“I played hockey for the Cambridge University team and in the England national league, then kids and immigration got in the way. We are now into social soccer and the kids – a son (11), daughter (9) and son (7) - are all into soccer at the Te Atatu club. And we do a lot of cycling out there.”

She is a trustee and treasurer of the Te Atatu Toy Library.

Finishing university as the first lawyer in her family, Sarah went to Bar school and to London with a scholarship from Gray’s Inn and became a member there. “Most of my marks were very competent and outstanding. I then applied for pupillage, but I decided early on I didn’t want to stay in London.”

Not seeing herself living in the big city and knowing that if she went to the provinces as a pupil she would get more opportunities to get on her feet, get her own cases sooner and get more responsibility, she applied to the main centres outside London, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Exeter and Bristol.

“I ended up in Bristol, which is a fabulous city, bit more than a million people and a bit like Auckland.

“One in four lawyers from Bar school would get a pupillage, then from that one in ten would get a tenancy - a permanent position in chambers – which was another incentive to move out of London.

“In pupillage you sit with a number of different barristers, follow them around, do some comparative work, some research and offer advice. I was unpaid but I had a small scholarship.

“After six months you are on your feet, get to start taking you own cases and get paid for those, but you are reliant for work on the clerk and the barristers you work under.

“The TV drama Silk is a pretty accurate view of the clerk’s position. You’ve got to keep the clerks on side. Then you end up in trials.

“I did a lot of trial work because I was doing criminal law and personal injury law in Bristol. Sometimes fast-tracked one to two day long cases. You often only get the papers for the next day the night before. I did eight years at the junior Bar, mainly on shorter trials.

“Criminal work is a bit different but for civil they would tend to hold on to papers until the day or night before because solicitors don’t have to pay your brief fee until they deliver the papers – so they leave it as long as possible, and you pick it all up and run with what you’ve got.”

The Bristol connection

The couple didn’t have any jobs when they arrived in New Zealand but had a few friends from Bristol who had come out before them. “We quickly realised Ian’s work would be Auckland-based and he got a job working for Graeme Hart. I was at home with a four-month-old son.”

Sarah did five exams to gain admission in New Zealand, while working with a firm specialising in leaky buildings as a lay advocate. “It was a lot more work than I thought. I did three exams one year and two the next while effectively being home with the kids until 2009. I was basically learning how to be a solicitor.

“Having been at the Bar in England I knew it was a lot of fun working for yourself and being in a chambers environment, having the ability to set your own fees, being responsible for yourself without the stress of staff. And having flexibility to take on pro bonos and set my own path.”

She went to the independent Bar this year.

Tennis stars and James Bond

“I listen to lots of podcasts, read historical fiction, I’m a fan of Hilary Mantel and have just read Andre Agassi’s interesting Open: An Autobiography.

“I liked neuro-surgeon Dr James Doty’s Into the Magic Shop and James Rhodes, who had to go all the way to the Supreme Court in England to get permission to publish his book Instrumental.

“Rhodes was sexually abused at seven and had serious mental health issues. He is now a successful concert pianist, the same age as me. His ex-wife took him to court on the basis of an intentional tort to harm their son by publishing the book.

“We watch Netflix and Lightbox mainly and I like criminal and legal dramas. Silk is up there. Broadchurch and the first series of Top of the Lake. I’m re-watching West Wing and enjoy dramas we can watch with my eldest.

“I love all James Bond, Jason Bourneand Star Wars movies and my favourite ‘go to’ movies are Jerry McGuire, Blindside and Love Actually…

“I play the piano and my daughter is learning. I like English pianist Stephen Hough and my favourite composers are Chopin, Rackmaninoff, Bach and Mozart.

“We have a King Charles Cavalier spaniel called Cromwell, an older dog who came to us about five months ago and we adopted him. The kids campaigned for months and my daughter presented me with power point presentations on the health benefits of having a dog … all the things that she was going to do to look after it. Of course, he’s now my dog and I secretly love him.

“I have a Toyota Estima, a people mover for family and dog.

“We love the Coromandel but have been here 11 years and been back to the UK five times, which is quite a mission for five of us.

“We like camping try to see as much of New Zealand as we can. I’m not missing England or Ireland, particularly at the moment, but I am missing Europe.

“I’ve decided that after a decade of not being in inland Europe – having been there once or twice a year in my 20s – I’m missing it, especially France. I speak French and did au-pairing and working in campsites. I’m very glad to be away from all those security concerns at the moment.”

Sarah’s chambers are next door to the Irish Consulate - “so I should be looking at getting my Irish passport sorted.”

Port and pinot

“I’m listening on podcasts to Krista Tippett – On Being, Rob Bell – the Rob Cast and Malcolm Gladwell, The Revisionist History. They seem like great conversationalists so they would be my dinner guests.

“I love to cook so there would be slow cooked pulled pork and lots of ice cream for dessert. Bubbles, Central Otago pinot and Mazuran’s Directors Port to finish.”

Sarah is coming to the end of some post-earthquake and leaky-building cases she has been dealing with for three or four years. “It’s satisfying to bring people out the other end of a long drawn-out process and try to make sure the trauma of the litigation proceedings is minimised as much as you can. One was settled recently at the start of a six-week trial, which was very satisfying.

“My first jury trial in England was prosecuting somebody who had elected trial by jury for the possession of one bullet. The judge thought it was ridiculous. The police suspected him of a lot more but that was all they could find.

“When the jury went out my opponent leaned over and said ‘How about winner buys lunch?’ and I said ‘Sounds good to me’. Seven minutes later the jury came back with an acquittal. Basically, it was the time it took to walk from the court to the jury room and back. There’s nothing quite like the drama of a jury trial.

“I like Irish music and big parties and we always have a big St Patrick’s Day party. So maybe I would have an alternative career as a diplomat. Like our landlady Niamh McMahon.”

Honorary Irish Consul General and lawyer Niamh McMahon was profiled in July, 2015.

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