New Zealand Law Society - One-time wannabe air hostess now a reinvented lawyer

One-time wannabe air hostess now a reinvented lawyer

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Miriam Dean
Miriam Dean

Miriam Dean broke two traditions at Russell McVeagh in December, 1987 – by becoming the firm’s first female partner and having the announcement relayed on pink paper.

Thirty years later, in September 2017, Miriam was guest speaker at the firm’s recognition of 100 years of women’s suffrage, when New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant all adult women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

“1987 isn’t that long ago for the first female to be made a partner in one of New Zealand’s biggest law firms.” says Miriam, who has recently withdrawn from litigation to focus on her board and governance work.

“I was the first women partner at Russell McVeagh and the only person to have their partnership announcement printed on pink paper, which went to all the staff.

Miriam Rose (Miriam) Dean CNZM QC
“I’ll tell you but you are not to put it in”
Entry to law
Graduated Bachelor of Social Sciences from Waikato University, LLB (Hons) from Auckland University in 1981 and LLM from Harvard University in 1983. Admitted in 1981.
Miriam Dean Queen’s Counsel, Auckland.
Specialist area
Commercial law, governance expertise and boardroom acumen.

“I put that down to the most delightful young woman in our copying department, called Ella. I used to spend a lot of time in the photocopying department because I was involved in a lot of big cases with the likes of David Williams, Ted Thomas and Richard Craddock. I had some great junioring experiences so knew Ella well.

“And while the firm decided the partnership was not going to make much of a fuss that I was the first women partner, Ella took it into her own hands and decided it was worth making a fuss about, so when that partnership announcement went around to all staff on the Friday afternoon it was on pink paper. Something I will never forget.”

Russell McVeagh currently has 33 partners, nine of whom are women.


“After more than 35 years in a wonderful legal career with wonderful highlights and opportunities to appear in some really grunty commercial litigation, I decided I couldn’t maintain that and my board work. At the end of the day I decided the board work was what I enjoy the most,” she says.

“I like being round a table with other directors and hammering out solutions and doing constructive things. That’s what pushes my buttons. I have reinvented myself. Someone else I know describes themselves as a reformed lawyer.”

Miriam was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2004 and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2011 for her services to law and business. She is co-chair of the International Council of Advocates and Barristers.

She is the former first woman president of the New Zealand Bar Association and among her many achievements is her appointment as a director of Otakaro, the Crown company whose purpose is to add value to anchor projects and Crown land in Christchurch; her directorship of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, directorship of Crown Fibre Holdings, chair of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme and chair of New Zealand On Air.

As well as appearing in many landmark commercial cases involving the Securities Commission and Commerce Commission, Miriam has been involved in numerous inquiries, including chairing the 2013 government inquiry into the Fonterra botulism scare; a 2012 review of the role of the Solicitor-General and Crown Law and a 2015 review of a report into ACC dispute resolution processes.

She was on the board of the Auckland transition agency responsible for amalgamating eight councils into Auckland City “in 18 months, an enormous task”.

“It has worked in the sense it makes sense to have one council and not eight. There are still teething issues but it was always going to be something that would take time,” she says.

Youthful cabin crew fever

“I never had any aspirations to be a lawyer, at 13 I wanted to be an air hostess.

“At 18 I wanted to be a child psychologist and was quite passionate about that, I went to Waikato University and did BA. I have no idea what the attraction was.

“I majored in psychology and sociology and, somewhat to my regret, at the end of first year I decided that either my teachers and the other students were half-cracked or I was far too sane and boring to be a psychologist and switched to history and English.

“I only came to the law because I had a wonderful history professor who, at the end of the third year when I really did not know what I would do or wanted to do, asked if I had ever thought about law.

“I had done well in history. My father and grandfather were lawyers – they practised in Rotorua and New Plymouth - and I was a Perry Mason addict when I was about 13 – having fights with my parents to be allowed to stay up and watch it. I love Perry Mason.

“It never occurred to me to do law. It was part of that woman thing. It never would have occurred to me in those days that I could possibly be a lawyer. Despite having law in the family no-one had ever raised it I had never thought about it.

“So I am always grateful to my history professor because if she hadn’t raised it with me I’m not sure where I would be. Maybe teaching history.”

“In my Russell McVeagh days they wanted to know why I wasn’t married. They always asked me why I haven’t got a husband. In my farewell speech I told them I’d much rather have a wife so they can do the Christmas shopping, the dinners, the housekeeping and are there when the plumbers come round. Even although I didn’t have a family it was still an issue.

“I have lots of godchildren and am a very popular godmother. When they come to stay and I have had enough I can give them back.”

Miriam lives with partner Rory - a sailmaker – and “a dear little dog called Molly, nearly eight. She’s a licorice all sort, a cross between a West Highlander, Jack Russell, Maltese and Yorkshire.”

“I’m a TV drama nut, ranging from pretty terrible crime thrillers to the Norwegian dramas, The Killing, The Bridge, the Danish Borgen, Homeland, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones.”

Mother’s books

“I like reading but regret these days don’t get enough time. I have many of my grandfather’s small leather-bound classics nearing 100 years old and love Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice to the light reads such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.

“But I have a special fondness for some of my mother’s books, the family sagas like John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, and from my childhood days the LM Montgomery Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon and all her novels, of which I have every one.”

Canada’s Prince Edward Island, the setting of Anne of Green Gables, is on Miriam’s travel list.

“My next challenge is doing less. I want to have more time to do other things, particularly travelling.

“We have a cottage at Onetangi, on Waiheke Island, and spend most weekends there where I have a vegetable garden. Rory says my veges are probably way more expensive than those you buy in the shop because by the time I put on compost, etc, and pay for a gardener to help me, they are very expensive veges.

“Recently – and I’m not sure if I should confess to this because people immediately think this is an older person’s pastime - but our most delightful Irish neighbour Dan persuaded me to go with him to the Waiheke Croquet Club and I found I really enjoy it. It’s a tactical game and fun, so I have joined Waiheke and Point Chevalier croquet clubs.

“Last Christmas we went to Vancouver with my good mate Gillian Coumbe QC. We went to Shanghai in April and we’re off to Hanoi and Na Houan in October.

“Waiheke, Havelock North, Nelson and Akaroa are our favourite New Zealand places.”

Broadcasting, banking and ballet

“About 20-odd years ago I got interested in governance and that’s where my passion now is. My first gig was on the Civil Aviation Authority, I’m not sure how I stumbled into that.”

“Then the government’s electricity review back about 2009, and out of that came a number of other opportunities, the board of Crown Fibre and the broadband rollout. I can’t get past the letter B. I’m involved in broadband, broadcasting, banking, ballet.

“As chair of NZ on Air I am proud of our support for Country Calendar, a great institution which still gets the best ratings of all the local content – a consistent 400,000 to 500,000 views a week. And Radio New Zealand is taking great steps forward.

“Claudia Batten, a former colleague at Russell McVeagh, now a Trade and Enterprise ambassador in the US, talks about careers being on a squiggly line – doing different things.

“With my governance and corporate work, the women in law workshops I spearheaded, and stepping back to some commercial mediation, I am still in the legal space and feel I am super squiggly because I have my foot in a number of patches.

“You have to have time to think and strategise and that’s a pervasive theme through what I’m doing. As a director you have to have that time. It is important for women to take time out from busy lives to think about what pushes your buttons.

“Where do you want to be in five years, how are you going to get there, who’s going to help and what behavioural changes do you need to have to get there?”

Winston for dinner – but not the Kiwi one

“I loved the film La La Land and recently saw Dunkirk – a most powerful movie. At the end I was left remembering just how much we owe those men. It was both tragic and uplifting.”

“If I was allowed to work a miracle and could bring back somebody from the dead for dinner - and maybe because he’s top of the mind at the moment - one of them would be Winston Churchill, because he was the most amazing leader of our time, as well as having the most interesting personal life.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is my favourite movie so Audrey Hepburn would be another dinner guest. She epitomises charm, elegance and femininity.

“I’m not really a cook, so if money was no object I would take everyone to one of the most lovely dinner experiences I have ever had, at Mosaic in Ubud, Bali.

“I drive a VW Golf, and have no idea what year.

“If I did consider an alternative career it would definitely not be air hostessing. I thought about going down the psychology route and if had my time again I think having law and psychology would be a fantastic combination.

“Law is not just about legal rules, it’s about understanding human behaviour. One of the reasons I have liked doing these women’s workshops and helping women plan and lead their careers is because I think women still need a bit more of a step up, a helping hand.

“Women are hard on ourselves and research shows women have lower levels of self- confidence than men.”

At workshops Miriam gets women to use a behavioural assessment tool based on four different behavioural traits: dominance, inducement, submission and compliance, to assess their self-confidence.

“In the work I’ve been doing with women in law workshops there is still an all-pervading theme that many women find it hard to balance the happy home life bringing up children and a legal career.

“All the firms have diversity policies and maternity/paternity leave, etc, but many women still say it is hard. Which is one reason a lot of women opt out of law, despite the fact we have all these women coming through law school.

“By far the majority of women are at the more junior and intermediate level and while lawyers in most of the law firms appear to be women, they are still not up there in the partnerships.”

Split decision victory  

“The well-known Pink Batts predatory pricing case that went all the way to the Privy Council in 2004, would be my most memorable. I had the huge privilege of junioring with Jonathan Sumption QC, now Lord Sumption of the UK Supreme Court.”

In what was probably its last pronouncement on New Zealand competition law, the Privy Council – by a 3-2 split decision – overturned a unanimous Court of Appeal judgment upholding a High Court ruling that Carter Holt Harvey abused its dominant position when dealing to a small Nelson company which produced woollen insulation to compete with Pink Batts.

“It was an absolutely memorable legal experience, having lost at the High Court, lost at the Court of Appeal, we won 3-2 at Privy Council. It was knife edge stuff.

“Claudia Batten put me onto a blog about how you can’t be both remarkable and busy. That resonated for me because I think lawyers judge success by how busy we are.

“The first thing a lawyer asks a lawyer is - are you busy?

“I only had the courage once with a rather arrogant male who asked ‘Are you Busy?’ – actually I wasn’t because I had these other things going on – to say ‘No I’m not, but I’d rather be remarkable than busy’,”.

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