New Zealand Law Society - Grounded high speed ski racer itching for water thrills

Grounded high speed ski racer itching for water thrills

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Kate Duckworth
Kate Duckworth

The naughtiest of four sisters, a party girl, and “a bit of trouble at school,” intellectual property specialist and water ski racer Kate Duckworth has lived life in the fast lane.

Growing up in Napier in a sporty family keen on any water sports, Kate developed a passion for high speed water ski racing and began competing when she was 12.

Water ski racing is a minority niche sport in New Zealand and has been defined as an extreme sport that combines speed, endurance and determination. It is also expensive and dangerous.

Kate Jane (Kate) Duckworth
Entry to law
Started LLB at Waikato University before transferring and graduating LLB and LLM from Victoria University. Admitted in 2000.
Kate Duckworth Intellectual Property, Wellington.
Speciality area
Intellectual property.

“That has been my main thing. I competed through to law school then had a break for a while and took it up again five or six years ago,” says Kate.

After finishing fifth in the world water ski racing championships held in New Zealand – with speeds up to 160km/h - Kate was in the New Zealand team to compete in Seattle last year until she fell off her ski and suffered a head injury.

“I decided to carry on to Europe but had a seizure on my way there and ended up in intensive care in San Francisco. My head injury was serious enough that I could not compete at the world champs and was off work for quite a time.

“I have only just been given the okay to start doing more dangerous things. We mostly race on a circuit on a lake or at sea. It is purely speed and the fastest I have been is 160km/h. When I got the head injury last year I was going 60km/h, which is slow for me. When you come off at 160km/h the outcome is probably not good.

“But I can’t sit still and am into mountain biking and have had head injuries with that, too. I run, go to the gym and do weightlifting for sport.

“I’ve done a few half and full marathons and entered the New York marathon once but I was still competing at water skiing, fell off and broke my ankle and could not do New York. I have also run the very glamorous Wellington marathon.”

Rapid rise in IP  

After leaving the Intellectual Property Office as an assistant commissioner, Kate joined Baldwins Intellectual Property in 2002, where she made partner at 32 and became head of litigation and commercial in the firm’s Wellington office. She then moved to Catalyst Intellectual Property before recently establishing her own firm.

“The water skiing accident played a big part in me setting up on my own. I wanted to get back to more advocacy work and took clients with me from my old firm. My head injury made me think about my life, what I wanted to do and to set up my own practice.”

The only lawyer in the family, she was the only New Zealand woman named in the World Trade Mark Review’s top 250 women in IP in 2017.

Her retailer parents reckoned the retail business was too hard and encouraged their girls to be professionals and supported them going to university and getting good grades.

“My sister, Nicole Duckworth, manages Fat Freddys Drop and is married to one of the lead musicians of the band. Which is probably not what mum and dad meant about being professionals.”

One sister works in retail in Taupo and another works with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare designing medical equipment.

“I was the naughtiest child out of the four of us. I might have been thrown out of school and might have had a bit of trouble at school. I liked partying. I wasn’t doing anything illegal, just having a really good time.”

She has been married for 20 years to “long suffering Anthony,” a structural engineer in Wellington.

Work has taken Kate to the Unites States a lot and to Europe and Asia but she has not been able to travel with her head injury “so I’m looking forward to getting back into it”.

The family have a holiday house at Taupo and her favourite spots in New Zealand are the Bay of Islands and Central Otago.

“I’m not musical myself but like New Zealand musicians – Fat Freddys Drop, Che Fu and Shapeshifter. When I was a child my piano teacher kicked me out and didn’t want to give me lessons any longer.

“In some ways studying and practising law took the joy out of reading. But I like to read and my favourites at the moment are Margaret Attwood and Witi Ihemaera.”

Justin the unpopular cat

Kate lived in Sweden for a year at 17 with a host family and attended school there as an exchange student. Another friend, who is also a lawyer, was an exchange student in Norway. “We hunt out Scandinavian films.”

“We have a bright yellow Holden FJ Cruiser, an enormous four-wheel drive. It tows boats and we put our mountain bikes on it. It’s good for up the mountain snow skiing. And we have a cream Mini Cooper Clubman.

“We have a pet cat I don’t like, a British Blue cat called Justin – it’s my husband’s

“I was described as argumentative as a child and as a teenager. The idea of being a lawyer was put in my head by people saying I should be one so I decided that at about 13 or 14.

“I thought about being a marine biologist or a zoologist but I did better in the arts than maths and sciences so it became an obvious choice to pursue law.

“I had particular attraction to intellectual property law and only got into it when a friend saw a job advertised in the Intellectual Property Office. I didn’t know what it was, and didn’t do the IP paper at university but got through the interview. Apparently I gave a good answer to how the Treaty of Waitangi was relevant to IP.

“Anthony Keidis from American funk band Red Hot Chilli Peppers would be my first dinner guest choice. I’m a vegetarian, a good cook and I like food and entertaining. We have a wood-fired pizza oven which is a good excuse to have people round.

“We have an extensive liquor cabinet, a bit of everything and Anthony makes a very good espresso martini, using the espresso machine, vanilla vodka and tequila cafe patron.”

Watching and learning

“Going to court and getting to appear as a junior with people such as Brendan Brown QC, Julian Miles QC and John Upton QC, are among the memorable moments that come to mind.

“Getting to work with and watch people of that calibre in action is my one true love in law. I like getting up on my feet in the courtroom. When I was at law school I would go to district and high court and sit in watching and listening – including watching the Scott Watson trial.”

Kate is on the Law Society’s women in law committee, the committee of the Intellectual Property Society of Australia and New Zealand and is in Toastmasters.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would be a professional sportswoman but I have never thought much about that because I have always been content with the law.

“My advice to junior lawyers is not to get too specialised early on, give yourself more options and explore different things.

“If I changed within the law it would be to a criminal lawyer and to that end I wish I had been in court more in my early career. I started working and started doing well and with that came promotions, status and salary increases. But it then becomes harder to move away from that path.”

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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