New Zealand Law Society - From San Francisco to Wairoa – all you need is love

From San Francisco to Wairoa – all you need is love

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Heather Vaughn
Heather Vaughn

A chance meeting in a New York bar lured San Francisco litigator and Beatles fan Heather Vaughn to her wedding in Invercargill, a job in a Gisborne practice and a new home in Wairoa.

Heather was at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, and doing summer work for philanthropist Teresa Heinz, the wife of 2004 US presidential candidate John Kerry, ghost writing an online book on women’s health and the environment, a few blocks away from the White House.

“I went to a concert in a bar in New York where a bunch of law students were in a cover band, and there was my future husband – Peter Blake - at the bar. At the time he was a survey pilot, working for companies looking to mine and was on his way to Africa.

Heather Briana (Heather) Vaughn
San Francisco
Entry to law
Graduated BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 2006. Juris Doctor from Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon. Admitted in New Zealand in 2013.
Woodward Chrisp, Gisborne.
Speciality area
Criminal law, civil litigation, immigration.

“He came to visit me in Oregon, his family came over for a trip to California and I took them around.

“When I finished the California bar exams I was looking for work, which was difficult because of the economy and a lot of law graduates were taking jobs as legal secretaries. It was hard to find work in my specialised area of environmental law.

“Peter suggested a working holiday to hang out in New Zealand and see how I liked it. I never left. We got married in Invercargill, which is where he is from. Love brought me to New Zealand.”

Peter is now an aerial top-dressing pilot for Farmers Air, based in Wairoa, and the couple have four-year-old twins James and Lenore.

Heather took a year off after completing her BA at the University of California and travelled to Latin America before going to Lewis & Clark – then the US’s leading environmental law school, to do her Juris Doctor.

“I was always into environmental advocacy, restoration ecology and wetlands restoration so I had to decide what I wanted to do - go to law school and become an environmental lawyer, which is what I did,” she says.

“A bit of a culture shock”  

When she first came to New Zealand Heather had taken the California bar exam and was a member of the Bar but wasn’t sure if she would stay in New Zealand.

“The first year I was here I didn’t transfer my qualifications over because it is quite a process. You have to apply to the New Zealand Council of Legal Education with your CV, grades, and a profile of classes you have taken so they can see how they correspond to the New Zealand law degree. If they believe you meet the qualifications you are invited to sit six exams. If you pass those you can take your professionals, but it takes a long time.”

It took Heather about six months of self-study to prepare for the New Zealand exams, while working as a committee secretary at the Gisborne District Council.

“Gisborne was a bit of a culture shock after San Francisco, but now it feels like home.”

She joined Gisborne firm Woodward Chrisp where she is able to work from the Gisborne office or from her home office in Wairoa, just over an hour commute away.

With the twins at the local day care centre, she is grateful to have a lady who comes in and takes the children to day care and picks them up when necessary. “I am lucky because we have no family in town - she picks them up and takes them to her house.

“It’s definitely really tough to juggle work and family. My primary role in the firm is as a litigator so it means going to court quite a bit, with a lot of preparation and late nights.

“Lots of the time I’m feeding the kids, doing dinner, bathing them, getting them to bed then I am back in the home office till midnight. Luckily, my job is flexible so the days when I have court in Wairoa I work from home.

“When I work in Gisborne I have to leave at 3.30 to pick the kids up before 5. My husband is good, but he works long hours as well. When I’m on a trial he’ll get up earlier and help out being the dishwasher and cooking dinner. It’s definitely team work.”

After a year in Gisborne Heather and Peter bought a house in Wairoa with a big section and a big tree where they put up a tree house for the kids. “We love it here,” she says.

Heather’s mother, now retired, was a nurse with the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs for about 20 years. “It was a very hard job and it took its toll on her seeing the condition a lot of the vets come back in.”

Her father, who died from cancer three years ago, was a US Marine before becoming a carpenter - taught by his father. “Dad built houses, made furniture and could do anything. He was very skilled.”

The only lawyer in her family, Heather’s brother is a fire fighter and sister an optometric technician.

Running in tribute to family friend

“At the moment all I seem to do is work and be a Mum, but I got into running last year and am getting ready for my second half marathon – the Saint Clair vineyard half marathon in Marlborough.

“One of our friends, George Anderson, a top-dressing pilot, crashed and died a year ago. Peter was flying nearby and saw it happen.

“George had done his first half marathon. So, in honour of him, Peter and I started running. Peter did his first full marathon, the Napier one, last year. I did the Taupo half marathon and we are meeting up at Saint Clair with George’s family and friends in honour of him. I love it and it’s great to have exercise in this type of job.”

Having hiked with her Dad in US national parks, including Yosemite and Yellowstone – “my whole childhood was pretty much camping and hiking” – Heather has sea kayaked the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, where it’s “a bit cold but nice in the summer.  You rent your kayak, have a map, a compass and some food and away you go. And hope you make it”.

At 17 she went to Costa Rica for summer, staying with a family on a farm and taught English at a primary school for three months. “I loved it and then went backpacking in Europe before going to university - Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands.”

After university she travelled around Central and South America, including Belize, Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia, and climbed Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu.

“I like reading about places and going there, finding my own way and meeting new people. My sister got married in Belize, which is one of my favourite countries.

“I’m trying to read George Orwell’s 1984, but I’m late to the game. It’s something you read in high school and are rebelling. I watched a movie called Icarus – a US documentary on sports doping – and am reading the book about that. Unbroken, the story of US athlete and prisoner of war Louis Zemperini, is also a fascinating read.”

Her favourite TV shows are John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Shameless and Modern Family.


“I’m not too much into pop, but love The Killers, who are coming to New Zealand later this month, and Tom Petty. And I love The Beatles.”

Heather’s love of The Fab Four began when she took a “fun” class in Beatles appreciation at university. “It was great and we learned all about their lives and music. I also took a class in North Indian classical music, trying to learn about things I know nothing about.

“My favourite Beatles song is Blackbird, but there’s also Revolution, All My Loving, Got To Get You Into My Life, Happiness is a Warm Gun, In My Life and Strawberry Fields Forever.”

The family has a new black Labrador called Toto and Heather drives a second-hand Mitsubishi Diamante. “It serves me well, after I killed my last car.”

“I love the South Island but we recently bought a piece of property on a failed subdivision at Mahia, between Napier and Gisborne, and love it there. It’s great for kids to become water-wise and go camping there.

“I don’t want to cook anyone dinner, so my guests would bring pot luck. I voted for Bernie Sanders, in the US primary and was disappointed he lost to Hilary Clinton. He’s an amazing person and his ideas on reforming health care and parental leave are inspiring.

“If he can’t make it, maybe Malala Yousafzai – the youngest Nobel Prize laureate and Pakistani activist for female education who was shot by the Taliban. I would give them some Sauvignon Blanc but they would have to bring their own food.”

Heather says her most memorable moments so far in New Zealand law has been junioring with Adam Simperingham on behalf of Witness C – a secret jailhouse witness who was earlier found guilty of perjury after providing evidence leading to David Tamihere being jailed for a double murder 28 years ago.

Mr Tamihere was found guilty of the murders of Swedish tourists Heidi Paakkonen and Urban Hoglin.

Witness C is battling through the courts to keep his identity suppressed, a question which awaits a decision of the Court of Appeal.

“It is ongoing and is one of the most fascinating cases I have ever been involved in,” says Heather.

“My alternative career would probably be in conservation work.”

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