New Zealand Law Society - The Curious Case of the Swingy Chair and What Happened Next

The Curious Case of the Swingy Chair and What Happened Next

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By Jock Anderson

Helen Ione Katherine (Helen) White
Entry to law
Graduated Auckland University LLB(Hons), BA (history major), 1990. Admitted 1994. 
Barrister sole practising from Auckland District Law Society Inc building. 
Speciality area
Employment law.
Helen White
Helen White

Most lawyers have one case that, for whatever reason, captures the public imagination.

For Auckland-based employment lawyer Helen White it was her successful fight to win back the jobs of workers sacked by dairy giant Fonterra after videoing themselves doing the Harlem Shake at work.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ruled in 2014 that workers accused of serious misconduct and sacked in 2013 be permanently reinstated.

The Harlem Shakers case tickled the public fancy and had wide media coverage (the video is still out there.)

A strong advocate of unions – she was previously in-house counsel for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) - and employee collectivity, Helen says the Harlem Shakers would not have been able to take a case if they were not represented by a union.

“Collective bargaining and collectivity works, but is not valued anymore. People are hell bent on breaking it up …

“It’s those on $100,000 and $150,000 plus who can afford to take a grievance these days. If you don’t have a union then workers not on that kind of money can’t take a case.

“You can make eloquent findings about natural justice but it is about access to it. Our primary cases are all about airline pilots, lawyers and doctors – individuals who can afford it.”

Married to family lawyer Alex Ashworth and with a 19-year old son and daughters aged 16 and 14, Helen says being a barrister sole is a good way of balancing work and family.

She has practised on her own account as a specialist employment barrister, appearing regularly in the ERA and Employment Court, since 2006.

“It’s better in terms of overheads and flexibility and you can adjust to the level of work you do.

“For a long time I was not the primary income earner … I was doing both, the kids and work … As they got older my work increased and I am fulltime now – which is something of a luxury compared to a lot of women.”

“I enjoy employment law, it is more regular than the demands of family law, and I find it easier to contain my work within a relatively normal day.

“My husband, for example, can have some crazy times at night if his family clients have urgent situations.”

A yoga fan – “I’m completely hopeless at it” – Helen enjoys the family bach at Scott’s Landing, north of Auckland, walking the Heaphy Track and preparing for an assault on the Kepler Track this year with a plan to do the Routeburn Track later.

“I like going slowly and watching the birdlife.

“I love crime fiction and love Wallander-creator Henning Mankell and Raymond 'Philip Marlowe' Chandler.”

An Audrey Hepburn fan, she rates Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Two for the Road as her best films.

She fancies the 1999 Pierce Brosnan/Rene Russo remake of the Thomas Crown Affair over the 1968 Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway original.

“Television does nothing for me, there’s nothing there. I do podcasting and like listening to Melvyn Bragg – he’s arrogant and curious.

“I hate losing so competitive sports are not for me. I stopped playing chess when my son won three games in a row …

“Employment contracting is a huge issue for me and I have written a lot about it. We need to start on insisting that vulnerable people need protecting.

“Current employment law has forgotten the need for an underpinning network of protections for employees.

“You can make all the most beautiful decisions about how you regulate an employment relationship but if you allow exploitative dependent contracting then you have left the back door open for something much worse.

“My ambition is to try to create better law and protect vulnerable people.

“For me its all about vulnerability. I am unhappy about the way inequity is playing out on the workplace.

“I get the privilege of seeing a lot more people on the breadline than a lot of my colleagues because I have union work.

“Law keeps your brain alive. My dad was a lawyer and he had a swingy chair in his office.

“I wanted one so I became a lawyer. I love the legal arguing. Law is very generational and it makes a cultural difference for someone coming into law if they have a family background in it.

“I had an easier time, as my son – who got an A plus for a recent law paper - would if he became a lawyer.

“It’s difficult for someone coming in as a first generation having to learn the whole culture of law.

“A lot lawyers are struggling with meeting their own expectations because their own expectations are just dumb and too hard …

“But it does get better as you get older…” 

Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for several decades. He also writes the weekly Caseload column for the New Zealand Herald. Contact Jock at

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