When Auckland QC Marie Dyhrberg pulls up at the lights it’s not necessarily her fame as a leading criminal defence lawyer that stops traffic – it’s her bright white 2016 Ford Mustang GT V8 with upgraded grunty exhaust.
“I love it,” says Marie, a devotee of classic muscle cars.
“Guys come past, give me the thumbs up and a big smile. Filling up at Pokeno one day an older fella came up, looked the car all over, we had a good chat about Mustangs and he told me to ‘look after it, girlie’.”
“I rumble around town and you can hear me coming. I love classic cars. We used to go down to Queen Street and watch all the guys with their shiny tweaked-up cars, big boom boxes. Cool dudes hanging out.”
- Marie Jeanette (Marie) Dyhrberg QC
- “Do I have to?”
- Entry to law
- Graduated BA from Canterbury University and LLB from Auckland University. Admitted in 1982.
- Barrister at Marie Dyhrberg Queen’s Counsel, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- Criminal defence.
All of which is a far cry from the former brothel that is now her office in Otahuhu, with her bicycle out the back waiting for the phone to ring and the hope of a file to take to court.
With school certificate only, Marie took off for her “big OE” to the United States for three and a half years during President Richard Nixon’s term “because I was always very pro-America and wanted to get to all the things happening there”.
Homing in on Washington DC, New York and the eastern seaboard, one of her jobs in Washington was as a “not well paid but tax free” procurement officer with the New Zealand defence staff, acquiring maintenance equipment primarily for the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
“Being young and a Kiwi girl in Washington we went for it, played tennis, did all sorts of things. Wined and dined by men with power and budgets.
“On weekends I’d jump in a Ford Maverick and spend weekends in New York. I love the eastern seaboard. I’m an eastern seaboard versus California girl.
“It was exciting time in the States then. The race situation was still strong. If you dated an African-American they didn’t spit at you but you definitely felt it. So there was rebellion from me there.
“I was right in the heart of anti-Vietnam protests and moratorium marches in the Nixon years. There was teargas in the air but I didn’t get bashed or anything. I am so sad I missed the Watergate hearings. I would have got a night job and been glued to the TV. I love that intrigue and power.”
Marie returned to New Zealand for sport – mainly her love of netball and basketball. After passing a couple of BA units she considered returning to America but that in order to have stayed there she would have had to compromise by marrying wealth.
“But I would always be uneducated. I adored courtroom drama but as a good old Catholic working class woman how would I ever be a lawyer?”
Partway through her BA at Canterbury University she found it “a bit simple and people were telling me to go into law.” She moved to Auckland in 1978 not wanting to stay in the “very class conscious” southern city, and wanting to earn some money.
After graduating from Auckland University she worked in law firms between 1982 and 1986. “My heart was always to work in south Auckland but I could not get the jobs. In 1984 I got a job doing family work in Otahuhu with Castle Connor Green as it then was.
“I opened my own practice in Otahuhu on January 3, 1986, in my own little house, which before that was a knock shop.
“I wasn’t going to practice at court, I would have an office and people would come and see me at the office. My aim was criminal law although I did family law to keep me going.
“My secretary gave me three months and stayed for eight. When the phone went twice a day we got excited. My bike was out the back with no files.
“It was fantastic. A fantastic court at Otahuhu. There were so many street kids and parents so worried for their children.”
Not married, “I am still one of life’s unclaimed treasures”, Marie has spent a lot of time with her godson.
The first in her family to go to university, her father was a builder and mum a registered nurse who won the Seddon Medal for primary school proficiency in 1935, and who was still writing up to age 94.
From an immigrant French family, there was money for Marie’s mother to go to university but the Depression put paid to that. Marie’s older brother lives in America, her younger brother was a builder in Sydney, niece Stephanie is a lawyer in Wellington and third cousin Peter practices in Christchurch.
“Mum’s father, my grandfather, was a conscript in the French navy. In 1900 he set off to travel the world and ended up about 1910 labouring to help build the Otira tunnel. He wrote to my grandmother and said he had finally found his paradise – Otira - and invited her to join him, get married and have a family.”
“My paradise is New York, I was supposed to be born there, I don’t know what went wrong.
“Now suffering ailments of a very active sports life, I walk, hike and love movies. I loved Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I don’t like light or frivolous, I like drama and StarWars, Aussie movies, and New Zealand ones like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Leonardo de Caprio is stunning, Frances McDormand, the Coen Brothers and William Macey who is so under-rated.”
A former junior representative netballer and senior netball and basketball player, she came to squash late. “I watch masses of sport, NBA, American football, rugby, league, tennis.
“Mum was brought up in Greymouth and I played a lot of sport on the West Coast. There’s nothing like a West Coaster and the scenery is to die for. It’s great to be incognito and relate - people talk about their history, who owns what and all the goss. I’m very much a West Coast and South Island person.”
“The South Island has it all - Queenstown, Wanaka and the West Coast.”
“I love going on bush walks in the Waitakeres and on the North Shore. I’m doing the Hollyford Track in March and have done the Abel Tasman walk. The dogs get walked around Ponsonby and Herne Bay.
“I’ve done half marathons in Kerikeri and Taupo, but my running days are over so I’m always out the back with the last walkers. I got a medal in Rotorua for being last across the line. We just want to finish.
“I have Charlie, a King Charles spaniel and Ping, a 14 and a half year old Pekinese/Japanese chin dog. As a dog nana I look after another couple – a Chihuahua and a Papillon. Minky is a ginga and white moggy who rules the dogs.”
Appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2014, Marie is a mentor to young lawyers and has held many professional legal and business roles, including since 2005, senior magistrate of the Magistrates; Court of Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands.
Her roles as president of the New Zealand Criminal Bar Association and chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the International Bar Association (the first woman to take on both roles) opened up opportunities for international travel, especially with the IBA.
“What helped guide me travelling was being on the IBA, and ending up in Africa and South America, for example, going to conferences and travelling the countries. I have seen lots of Europe and always wanted to see Auschwitz and Birkenau. I relate very strongly to that.
“Last year I did the Trans-Siberian train and ended in Mongolia. I’ve done a bit of China, northern Italy but really want to do southern Italy - put a backpack on and wander through the villages taking my time.”
Hard rock v The Sound of Music
“I can’t make music and don’t sing. Even when I drank – which I gave up 20 years ago - you wouldn’t get me to sing. At seven the nuns sent me back from the church saying I was too loud and too flat. I have never sang since.
“But I love opera and always cry. Early blues and 60s and 70s rock. Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Stones, Kiss, Motley Crüe, Fleetwood Mac, Alice Cooper, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“Another lawyer invited me to go with them to see the Sound of Music but I said ‘sorry I’m going to see Motley Crüe and Alice Cooper’. I go to lots of rock concerts.
“Music for my ‘celebration of my life’ funeral, which my godson is compiling, includes Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore Jay, Bobby Bland, and CCR. A lot of protest and civil rights songs too. It should be a fabulous send off.
“I studied American literature at university and am back reading a lot of those Mark Twain classics. I read courtroom drama and a bit of feminist stuff as well - not that I have come through as a feminist, far from it, as you know, I have not done that. I like Janet Frame and have just finished a lovely and philosophical book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, written through a dog’s eyes. I read all of crime writers Scott Turow, Patricia Cornwall and James Patterson.”
Marie is known for her lead defence in more than 20 murder trials, including representing one of seven accused in the 2001 murder of pizza delivery man Michael Choy and of accused murderer Teina Pora at two trials, after winning a retrial.
“I hoped one day Pora would be cleared “then along came lovely Tim McKinnell” [the private investigator who pieced together sufficient material to help eventually satisfy the Privy Council to quash Pora’s murder convictions]
“I like to have people round for dinner and I’m doing renovations at the moment. I would do anything to have Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Helen Clark, President Obama, Catherine the Great – she put Russia on the map, was hard-working, had many lovers and treated them well - Martin Luther King, Jean Batten, Richard Nixon - there are so many.
“It would be a typical New Zealand menu, oysters and whitebait, fresh greens salad, baked snapper and lamb garlic and rosemary. Then pavlova. Kiwi berries and good Kiwi cheeses. I gave up drinking 20 years ago but serve grog all the time, I have half-opened bottles everywhere.
“I’m learning black and white photography and my alternative career would be to learn in the style of Vivian Maier’s US urban street life.
“I’d go to Ireland and photograph people in black and white and write about those places. That’s my dream. I would love to be photo-journalist.”