New Zealand Law Society - Neil Gray looks back

Neil Gray looks back

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Neil Gray, formerly senior partner and consultant at Chapman Tripp in its Wellington office, has been in legal practice for nearly six decades. He joined Chapman Tripp in 1955, was admitted in 1956 and became a partner in 1962.

Over a varied career spent almost entirely with Chapman Tripp, Neil Gray practised in commercial law, estate planning and family trust work.  Looking back, he says, his career has mirrored the changes in the New Zealand economy over the past 50 or so years.

"Chapman Tripp has been involved in many major government projects and reforms during the restructuring of the economy and I have been fortunate enough to have been part of that."

While growing up in Nelson, he did not think of becoming a lawyer.  As a child during World War II he says there was no time for thinking of careers "…we just hoped the war would finish before we were conscripted."

His father was a ship's carpenter who came from Aberdeen and trained in Glasgow before immigrating to Nelson. Neil Gray grew up reading the Horatio Hornblower series and similar swashbuckling stories, and decided he wanted to follow his father and be a boatbuilder. "But I was hopeless with my hands, though good at English, History and Maths. My dad (an ardent unionist) pointed that out to me, and told me I should use my intelligence and avoid manual work –'be a boss', he said, and so I studied academic subjects, including Latin, and eventually headed for university."

Beere & Riddiford

Neil Gray went to Wellington to study law at Victoria University College, as it then was, in 1952. After two years full-time study he was taken on as a law clerk, as was the practice at the time, working for O & R Beere & Riddiford – one of whose partners was Dan Riddiford, later to be MP for Wellington Central and Attorney-General. The wages were"£3.10 a week: "…just enough to cover my board at Weir House."

Along with all young law clerks then, Neil Gray was expected to do the manual title and company searches and registrations required by the Land Transfer Office. The Wellington Land Transfer Office covered a wide region, and stretched as far as Taumarunui and Pahiatua – many city firms did agency work for their colleagues in the provinces.  "There was a constant flow of searches and documents to register – I think I more than paid my way through the fees I earned on that agency work," he says.

The following year Neil Gray joined Chapman Tripp & Co, where life became busier – he was given an office of his own as well as some junior conveyancing work. Life was hectic for young lawyers, then as now.  Study for five subjects, as well as dealing with work every day, meant a very full life, "…often coming home after lectures at 7pm, hoping your flatmates had cooked dinner!"

In 1956 Neil and two other Chapman Tripp colleagues, Barry Boon and Peter Hannah, were admitted in open court by Mr Justice Philip Cooke, a former member of Chapman Tripp and father of the late Lord Cooke of Thorndon. An empanelled jury looked on with bemusement.

"I got as far as the cable car..."

Neil toyed with the idea of further study, perhaps a Masters or a BCom. "I got as far as the cable car on enrolment day but couldn't go any further. After five years of early morning and evening lectures, I just could not face that again. Also, having had two or three years as a law clerk, I was now being given files with minimal supervision and was up and running, and soon was doing quite senior commercial work."

Senior work at the age of 22 or 23 was not unusual then, Neil says, partly due to the dearth of solicitors in their thirties because of the effects of the depression and two world wars. "There were lots of opportunities.  You didn't have fees budgets or billable hours and you didn't keep a record then, because much of it was scale work with set fees." He says he was surprised to later learn that he was the top fee earner in the firm, including partners, for two years after his admission.

In 1959, he decided to broaden his experience by travelling overseas. "I think I was the first solicitor from Chapman Tripp to do such an 'OE'." He offered his notice but was told that he would be granted leave of absence provided he was back by 31 March 1960. In fact, he returned on that day at 4.55pm!  His 14 months of hitchhiking around Europe and supply teaching in secondary modern schools was an experience he has never forgotten.

The heavy impost of death duties in the "Black Budget" of 1958 was the first of many national economic changes to help propel Neil Gray's career. "There was a great increase in trust work as a reaction, and, when I returned in 1960, Ron Baird asked me to work with him on this and we developed a very significant trusts practice throughout the southern half of the North Island and the top of the South Island. We would often go and see the farmers on their properties, where they felt more comfortable."

Heavily controlled economy

At the same time, Neil was building up a wider commercial practice in New Zealand's then heavily controlled economy. Restrictions such as exchange controls and regulations which controlled the flow of funds in and out of New Zealand, rent controls and a shortage of capital were grist to a lawyer's mill. "You had to find ways of getting round the regulations, but the scope for commercial work was not wide and we still did a wide range of work including estates, conveyancing and trusts."

Chapman Tripp had a branch in Auckland by this time, predating by 20 years the moves by other firms to the Queen city. In 1966 the firm amalgamated with the firm of Barrie C Spring in Whangarei - possibly New Zealand's largest one-man practice at the time. 

Whangarei was burgeoning with the opening of Marsden Point oil refinery, and Neil, recently married and with no children or house, was the ideal person to go up there. There was little space in the office. Barrie Spring brought a card table from home and parked Neil, and another Chapman Tripp import, Tom Eichelbaum, to share it in the staff tea room. Ronald Davison QC did the firm's litigation work and would arrive once a month to go through the files. "I well remember being in that tiny room sitting at the small card table with two future chief justices!"

After five years in Whangarei and one in Auckland, Neil and his family returned to Wellington in 1974 where he continued his commercial and trust work, but also moved into property development, superannuation and pension funds, takeovers and mergers, and an expanding role with AMP for whom Chapman Tripp had acted for many years.

Some economic liberalisation had taken place in the Holyoake and Kirk governments during the 1970s, but this was thwarted by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978. "With New Zealand being the 'last drop on the milk run', it started looking towards energy independence and the so-called 'Think Big' projects, using Maui gas, were developed. We were fortunate to receive instructions from the new government energy company, Petrocorp, in the development of the Waitara methanol plant." Neil worked on this project for three years and visited Edmonton, Alberta, where the Canadian partner in the project was based.


The coming of the Lange Labour government in 1984, and the subsequent major deregulation of the economy, provided major opportunities for Chapman Tripp and Neil Gray. He assisted in the drafting of the State Owned Enterprises Act, and went on to work with a number of SOEs. "We were in the fortunate position of acting for several SOEs and I was asked to help with Telecom because of work I did for the New Zealand Post Office five years previously."

In the late 1980s, he assisted with the establishment of New Zealand Forestry Corporation and worked on the sale of Crown commercial forests, at the time probably the largest sale of commercial forests in the world. He also assisted with the drafting of the Crown Forests Act and with Crown Forestry Licences.

"I soon found I couldn't cope with both Telecom and Forestry, and I decided to commit myself to Forestry. I think the main reason was forestry seemed more concrete – I could see a tree, but I couldn't see a local loop!

"I always had a strong relationship with the Crown, especially Treasury. At that time, prior to corporatisation of government trading departments, departments could not brief outside lawyers without the consent of the Solicitor-General, and Crown Law did not have the resources. We were often known as the 'commercial law arm' of the Crown at that time and through that I helped with the electricity reforms of the late 1980s-early 1990s, the establishment of the wholesale electricity market, health reforms and the establishment of the regional health authorities.  

"I also assisted Crown Law on the commercial side of what became known as the Sealords Fisheries Settlement. I had no experience of Māori work but following on from Sealords, I was involved in the Treaty of Waitangi settlements of Tainui, Ngai Tahu and Ngati Awa – all incredibly interesting."

The demutualisation of AMP, with whom Neil Gray had been associated for many years, was in many ways the culmination of his commercial work, he says. "This was a fascinating process. And, because there were few people there who had been around when I started working for AMP, the institutional knowledge going back, was in my mind – no-one else had it."

Progressive retirement

By the late 1990s Neil Gray had begun progressive retirement, handing over clients and work to other partners. He retired as a partner in 2001. He still works with a few private clients, and for some he is assisting the third or fourth generations.

"They come and see me – why, I don't know…"

Neil has had a lifelong interest in the arts and was, along with Suzanne Snively and Richard Cathie, one of the three inaugural trustees of the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards Trust. He is a former chairman of the trust.

Neil Gray and his wife Tiahuia have been keen supporters of theatre in Wellington, with a particular interest in the achievements of their children (Merenia, Nathan Hoturoa and Tanemahuta) in the dance, theatre and literary worlds. Their two other children, Moana and Fraser, both graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a BA in drama studies. They have both pursued successful careers in London and Sydney in areas outside drama.

Neil is a former member of DANZ Aotearoa and has been legal adviser to Toi Whakaari, NZ School of Dance, Circa Theatre and Bats Theatre. He was a finalist in the arts section of the Wellingtonian of the Year Awards for 2014.

He was formerly chairman of directors of Acumen Republic and a former chair of trustees of the Alan Duff Charitable Foundation.

Substantial changes over 60 years

In over 60 years of practice Neil Gray has seen substantial changes in the profession. The main one would be technological advances particularly in communication – "…is there anybody out there who remembers the telex machine?" 

He notes the emergence of women lawyers who now make up the majority of law graduates. When Neil started in 1952 the average size of his law classes was 40 of whom five were women: the three Shirleys (Smith, Sim [Sunley], Robson), Paddy Steele and Mrs Alexander, a retired school teacher, who was studying law for interest. Neil recalls that the only woman practising as a lawyer in Wellington then was Miss Ellen Ongley.

Other significant changes include the abolition of death, stamp and gift duties, and online searching, registration and court filing.

Aside from that, he says, to paraphrase Shona Laing, "I'm glad I'm not a litigator!" He enjoyed being a commercial lawyer, which he sees as looking forward and trying to build something, rather than looking back at actions already taken place, as courtrooms tend to do.

Neil Gray says he has enjoyed a worthwhile career – the satisfaction of being proactive as the economy changed, and feeling that he had made a contribution, "…and of course my rewarding personal practice which has always been very important to me".

This profile was published in the June 2015 issue of Council Brief, the newsletter of the New Zealand Law Society's Wellington branch.

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