Many might consider starting in a law firm as an accounts executive or legal executive to eventually become a law firm partner in the same practice as a story of fiction.
But that’s exactly what happened for two of the women partners at rural law specialists, BlackmanSpargo, based in Rotorua.
In 2003, Ian Blackman and Chris Spargo established the firm upon realising rural legal work was the most fulfilling practice for them.
Since then the business has continued to grow including taking out many awards such as the NZ Law Awards Regional/Suburban Law Firm of the Year in 2006, 2007, 2015 and 2016.
“You can do anything you want”
The other two partners are Sandy Van Den Heuvel and Rachel Petterson and their journeys to becoming company directors are remarkable. Both local women were put through law school by BlackmanSpargo at the University of Waikato where they gained their degrees.
Mrs Van Den Heuvel began working as an office junior for another local law firm before studying and completing a legal executive certificate.
She then started working for Mr Blackman.
The firm financed and paid for both women’s law degrees while they maintained working practically full-time at the firm.
“Ian was always forward-thinking about the progression of the firm. He found it difficult with law graduates because most were young and there was a risk of putting time into a young graduate who could take the experience and quickly move on to another firm or head overseas,” Mrs Van Den Heuvel says.
So management made the bold decision to look at their immediate team for legal talent.
“Looking back it was not something I intended to do, but the opportunity came up at a time when my children were starting to consider career choices,” she says. “I decided the best example I could set them was getting a degree in law and showing them that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want.”
Mrs Petterson began her career at BlackmanSpargo in 2003 as an accounts executive. She completed a Diploma in Business after leaving school and had planned to undertake accountancy papers.
“Ian offered me accounts work in the firm but quickly moved me into legal work and I was a law clerk for a few years. I started off doing legal executive papers but then he offered me the opportunity to go to law school,” she says.
Mrs Petterson says she would not have known she had an aptitude for law if not for the encouragement from her then supervising partner.
Both women began their law degrees at the University of Waikato in 2006.
“We were both working full-time, had families and were travelling to and from the University, but managed to finish our degrees inside the four years.
“We were in a really lucky position having the support of the firm behind us and we also knew where we were going, and what the end goal was. A lot of students didn’t know what they were going to do when they finished or what field of law, whereas we had the security of knowing we had a good job to go back to and that it would be worth it,” she says.
Path to partnership
Not long after the pair were admitted, they became Associates and then progressed to Partners in April 2015. In most cases it can take at least six years before a lawyer has the opportunity to become a partner in a firm.
“Two women making partner at once is probably pretty uncommon too,” Mrs Petterson says with a laugh.
Mrs Van Den Heuvel says it worked out well with both herself and Rachel doing a Bachelor of Laws at the same time.
“We were travelling over to Waikato almost every day so there was a constant discussion about what we had learnt in class. We were permanent study buddies who could bounce ideas off each other,” she says.
Rural work a natural fit
Ian Blackman graduated from Victoria University in 1977 and before setting up the firm, he was employed with the Treasury, Department of Inland Revenue, the Department of Labour and the Rural Banking and Finance Corporation.
During the early 1980s, he was legal counsel then lending manager for the Rural Bank in Rotorua so when it came time to move into private practice as a lawyer, rural legal work was a natural fit. He is also the author of Keeping Farming in the Family – a Guide to Farm Succession, about trusts and succession planning, which remains a significant aspect of his work.
But before he and Chris Spargo set up their law firm, Mr Blackman spent eight years with East Brewster Lawyers in Rotorua.
“I resigned because Chris and I wanted to focus exclusively on the rural sector and my experience at the Rural Bank set me up pretty well to do that even though most of my colleagues said that I was mad because in provincial New Zealand everyone is a generalist not a specialist,” he says.
But what may have been viewed as a gamble has paid off.
“Instead of just providing our rural legal services to the Bay of Plenty and central North Island, we provide our specialist services to the whole of New Zealand,” Mr Blackman says.
Why finance staff through law school?
When the law firm was set up about 15 years ago, BlackmanSpargo employed several young graduates, but as Ian Blackman explains, they weren’t a great fit for their specialist practice.
“It occurred to us that if your philosophy is to maximise your potential as a person, then the corollary of that is if you’re in a privileged position you should maximise the potential of the people that you are surrounded by.
“You should mentor them. It was that philosophy that led us to offer Sandy and Rachel the opportunity to attend law school. They got their law degrees and within three to four years have become partners,” he says.
Mr Blackman says the contribution both women have made to the firm is greater than what BlackmanSpargo has made in paying for their legal education.
“They were travelling to and from Hamilton to law school and also working here. We couldn’t afford to not have them continue to work. They were very busy and Sandy even got her degree with first-class honours. I don’t want to categorise this in any way on a gender basis. They are both exceptional people with big hearts, good minds and they’re hard workers,” he says.
Mr Blackman says he knew they were the right people to put through law school because they had both been doing work that lawyers normally undertake for a long time. Mrs Van Den Heuvel had been doing legal executive work for about 25 years, having worked with Mr Blackman even before the firm was born. And Mrs Petterson was a legal assistant with the law firm for several years. The only piece of the legal pie missing was the formal degrees.
It doesn’t matter how far up the so-called food chain a person is, everyone is treated as equals.
“We’re not really a hierarchical firm and if we see potential or opportunities for other people, we try to work with them to make it happen,” says Sandy Van Den Heuvel.
Ian Blackman, who has been practising law for the past 40 years, is keen to retire soon and with Sandy and Rachel as partners, the firm is future-proofed.
Mrs Van Den Heuvel plans to walk the Ian Blackman philosophy talk and foster the potential of other junior staff.
“Yes, I hope to. For example we have an office junior filling in a fixed term position but we can see she has what it takes to go further so we’ve been encouraging her to do her legal executive papers,” she says.
When it comes to rural law, BlackmanSpargo says the firm’s expertise is unparalleled in New Zealand.
They deal with complex issues such as buying and selling farms and forestry blocks, deals that involve large sums of money.
And while the land is one big matter, there is also plant and machinery to consider, dairy company shares, livestock and all the other legal requirements of farming.
So saying your firm is unparalleled in rural law could be interpreted as a bold statement to make but it’s something Mrs Van Den Heuvel stands by.
“There are a lot more issues to take into account compared to the legal work in just buying or selling a house. You’ve got resource management issues. If it’s a dairy farm there might be some potential issues with Fonterra. And depending on what region a farm is located in, such as the ‘Healthy Rivers’ changes going through in the Waikato region,” she says.
Mrs Van Den Heuvel owns a dry stock farm running dairy grazers with her husband.
“Although I’m a lawyer, people get the feeling that I can relate to and understand their needs, particularly the younger generation such as sharemilkers,” she says.
The firm also deals with buying and selling kiwifruit orchards, tax law and banking for farmers, and rural employment law.
A smorgasbord of legal work
Rachel Petterson says her work varies greatly from day to day.
On the day of the interview for this story, she was working on an ‘Encumbrance involving the Waikato Regional Council’.
“That was about plans for an underpass so I was dealing with the council. I then had a grazing agreement to work through and rural trusts to form,” she says.
Mrs Petterson says she probably would have carried on down an accountancy path if BlackmanSpargo hadn’t identified her potential to be a lawyer.
Ian Blackman says retaining and growing legal staff in a law firm is about delegating the work to people who are competent to do it, which is why both women have become partners.
“Some lawyers will hold on to certain work because they’re scared stiff of losing the relationship or the work, but we turn that on its head and delegate as much of the good work to as many people within the organisation as can handle it.
“We set high standards and spend a huge amount of time doing professional training within this office. We’ve won the regional law firm of the year awards four times because we give it everything,” he says.