New Zealand Law Society - John Hanning looks back

John Hanning looks back

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Wellington lawyer John Hanning, now 78, has been in legal practice for 54 or more years and is still hard at work.

He calls himself a generalist and has worked in just about every category of the law, though working with IHC - for which he has been legal adviser since 1967 - has been a significant focus of his career.

At the same time as running his successful legal practice, John has had a kind of parallel life as a skilled virtuoso of the Scottish bagpipes. He calls piping his "recreation" but it is much more than that; his life of piping, including teaching and judging, is an essential and integral part of who he is. In a stellar piping career he has won just about every piping award there is, including all of the major Scottish awards, many of them more than once.

More will be said about piping later in this article. Suffice to say now that growing up in New Plymouth with a Scottish mother, a father of Scottish descent and grandparents in Scotland, it is little wonder that things Scottish became a fascination, and the young John Hanning started to learn the pipes at the age of 12.

Studying law in Wellington

He went to New Plymouth Boys' High School and was planning to head to Wellington in 1955 to study law at Victoria University when at Christmas time his accountant father was sadly struck by a debilitating stroke. His mother said, "Sorry John, that's it for university". Luckily a Taranaki scholarship available at the time still enabled him to go when supplemented by working in the holidays. 

John studied full-time at Victoria in 1955 and 1956 while living at Weir House. At the end of 1956 he joined Biss Cooper & Shires as a law clerk while continuing part-time study, following the practice of the time.

As with other law clerks, much of John's time was spent on land transfer and registration matters. Many Wellington firms, including Biss Cooper & Shires, were land registration agents for firms in Manawatu, Wairarapa and elsewhere. Land registration of course was still paper-based and law clerks spent a great deal of their time at the Land Transfer Office in central Wellington, searching and registering titles, and interacting with other clerks and with LTO staff.

"That was my job and I learned a huge amount very quickly. It was also very enjoyable. I got to know many of the LTO staff who were a very social crowd. You had a built-in excuse for leaving the office – you just wafted past the receptionist saying, 'Going to the LTO'. They were wonderful days really! We had a lot of fun."

Face-to-face settlements

"All our settlements were face-to-face. You met the other lawyers, got to know them, and best of all, if they were any good, came to trust them when settling transactions. Now that everything is electronic you hardly know anyone, trust has gone out the window – nobody trusts anybody any more."

The firm of Biss Cooper & Shires acted for many big farmers in the Kapiti area, including the Eatwell and Shaw families whose land was being subdivided for the growing Kapiti population. "I did a lot of the subdivision work in the late 1950s and interestingly, most of those sections were bought on time payment unlike today."

It was at Biss Cooper and Shires that John met his wife Pauline who was secretary to Bill Shires.

John joined Perry Wylie in 1959 where he came up against the indefatigable Sir William Perry, founder of the firm. "Sir William was a highly respected lawyer, very active in the community: he had been in the War Cabinet in 1943, was chairman of directors on NZ Breweries and other companies; he was a very likeable man."

John was admitted to the bar in 1961 and was to stay at Perry Wylie for nearly 20 years, eventually becoming senior partner. In the mid 1980s there were pressures for smaller firms to grow bigger by combining their fortunes with others, and Perry Wylie was no exception. The firm merged with Castle Pope in 1986, and the new entity was to last until 1990 when John, Peter Connor and a couple of others moved on and joined Macalister Mazengarb, then one of Wellington's biggest firms.

Hanning Connor

In a further move in 1991 John Hanning and Peter Connor formed Hanning Connor, ushering in a period that John regards as his most satisfying in the law and continuing a partnership association with Peter Connor that was to last over 40 years. 

"The practice that Peter and I had built up followed us wherever we went. I was always a generalist, working in insurance recovery, conveyancing both commercial and residential, probate and trusts. That being said, I remember Mr Wylie saying, 'never turn away a job', with the assumption that if you didn't know an area of the law you would soon learn it if you had to! I did one jury trial but I disliked the stress involved and decided it was not for me."

One of John Hanning's significant clients – IHC – stayed with him as he moved from firm to firm; he has remained that body's legal adviser since 1967. 

"I had a great relationship with J B Munro who was chief executive for 20 years. It became embarrassing to ring him and say 'Sorry JB, I'm on the move again'. To his eternal credit he said, 'I don't care where you go, the work will be yours'."

One more change of firm was to come when Hanning Connor became part of Duncan Cotterill in 2002. The large and long-established South Island firm was interested in opening a Wellington office. 

"We had been approached by them a couple of times but turned them down. Eventually they asked if we would allow Scott Moran, one of their lawyers, to work from our office for two years and this worked really well. After that two-year period of 'courting' we agreed to the merger and Scott Moran is now their senior partner in Wellington." John Hanning became a sole practitioner in 2013.

The IHC connection

A great variety of work was generated through John's connection with IHC, much in the social justice and personal rights area. John served on a committee with Justice John Jeffries for over a year on the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act 1988. 

"We had quite a hand in drafting the bill which was an interesting process and later a lot of Family Court work ensued from this Act.  I was also involved in numerous estate claims because of the many legacies left to IHC, and these opened up significant litigation. I had a major role in forming many allied organizations of IHC including the Downs Association, the Personal Advocacy Trust, the IHC Foundation chaired by Sir Roderick Deane, and also acted for Hohepa Homes.

"I also worked on the IHC constitution of which I am very proud. IHC is the biggest and most successful charity in the country and a major part of its success is in its strong national governance and leadership, something not all major charities are blessed with."

John is a life member of IHC and still acts for them from time to time.

And back to those pipes...

The pipes though have been ever present in John's life: "I love the pipes, I always have and always will – it has been my recreation. I'm still playing, not so well now sadly because my fingers are stiffening up."

John has put in many thousands of hours of practice, striving towards piping perfection. 

"Good pipers need finger dexterity and an ability to sing the music as all pipe tunes are committed to memory from the written score. As with all musical instruments constant practice is essential."

Being a member of pipe bands has been huge part of his piping career. He was in the City of Wellington band and the NZ Police band for each of 25 years, both winning major New Zealand titles. "It's a bit like the fire brigade – you have friends wherever you go," he says.

He was Pipe Major of the City of Wellington in 1961/62, the youngest Pipe Major ever to win the grade 1 New Zealand championships. He had been Pipe Sergeant for over 20 years. During the time he was with the New Zealand Police band they won the grade 1 New Zealand championship seven times, and the Australian grade 1 championships in 1988.

His first of many overseas piping tours was with the Wellington pipe band in 1958, the first-ever tour of the UK by an overseas pipe band. The band played at Clarence House where they met the Queen Mother. 

"I was still with Biss Cooper & Shires at the time. Mr Shaw, one of the big Kapiti farmers we acted for, said to Mr Cooper, 'I hope you're letting Hanning go to England with the pipe band'. Mr Cooper said, 'Well, we're not sure yet'. Mr Shaw apparently replied, 'Well, you'll get no more work from me if you don't', so I was allowed to go!"

A Scottish sojourn

In 1980 John and his wife Pauline went to Scotland to live for two years and while there John competed at all the major competitions. 

"I found it impossible to get work in the law – I think because they realised that I would not be there permanently, having three children back in New Zealand [teenagers at the time, living with friends and relatives]. I was lucky enough to work on the Atholl Estate for the Duke of Atholl. I was piper in residence and I played for all the tourists while Pauline managed the restaurant. It was an idyllic life, fascinating being part of the small Scottish village of Blair Atholl where most of the adults worked at Blair Castle or on the estate."

John is a prominent exponent of Piobaireachd ('Pibroch'), which might be called classical piping music. "It is a very developed and complex musical form dating from the sixteenth century. It requires immense concentration and very fine fingering skills. The bagpipe is a bit like the violin – depending on your skill you can make excruciating sounds or beautiful sounds."

John has won numerous Piobaireachd awards including twice winning the Baemar gold medal. It so happened that in the past New Zealand piping groups had invited prominent Scottish pipers to come over and teach Kiwis. One was Bob Brown who, as well as being a great piper, was also "Ghillie" at the Balmoral estate where he had taught members of the Royal Family to fish and hunt.

When John won the Piobaireachd gold medal at the 1987 Braemar Games he was congratulated by the Queen who is chieftain of the Braemar Gathering.  The Queen asked him why New Zealand pipers were doing so well.

"I said 'Well, ma'am, we've had Scots out to New Zealand to teach us, including your ghillie Bob Brown.' She turned to Princess Diana, Prince Charles and the rest of the family and said, 'This man knew Brown'!"

There are many other awards, medals, clasps and cups too numerous to mention. John has also been a prominent piping judge and taught several successful pipers including two sons, Ross and Alistair, both gold medalists. At the 1980 Edinburgh Tattoo with the City of Wellington band, John and his sons all appeared, "… a wonderful family occasion."

Back to Victoria University

In 2012 John completed a BA degree at Victoria in English literature, a project he had been working on for about five years. 

"When I was studying law I could not do a double degree as many did because my family situation meant I needed to be earning as soon as possible, so it has been satisfying to indulge my interest in literature at a later stage."

Like many older lawyers John Hanning has not found all recent changes in legal practice to his liking.  He looks back to times past when a lawyer might have a week to consider an appropriate response to a contentious letter, compared to today when a reply is expected more or less immediately by email.

"But the past is gone for good, there's no point in regretting it. I still enjoy the life of a lawyer, and I am very impressed at the quality of young lawyers, at how they can access legal information and precedents in a flash by computer."

He thinks fondly of many friends in the profession and of his many years partnership with Peter Connor. He is also very proud of one fact in particular: "I was admitted in 1961 and I can say that I have never been the subject of a complaint to the Law Society in that time."

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