Ever since he arrived in New Zealand as a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the early 1970s, Taranaki Law Society branch President Rajan Rai has called the central North Island, and in particular the region of Taranaki, home.
Originally settling in Stratford, his father served as a country teacher before moving his four children to Tokoroa where he worked in an accounting department. On graduating from the Otago University law school, Mr Rai began his legal career in Dannevirke before returning to Taranaki.
“In Dannevirke I was learning to draft wills, and farm conveyancing yet I wanted to get into litigation but there just wasn’t the scope there at the time,” he says.
“I really wanted to test myself in the area of litigation and gain further training in the profession. My uncle said his friend, a solicitor, was looking for a young lawyer to take on board at his offices here in Stratford. That was back in 1984. Within two to three years I was, at least compared with my friends who went to the cities, doing work at a much higher level in the courts.”
He credits the support and network of lawyers around Taranaki and how he could approach senior solicitors with ease, asking if they could guide him on how to do various types of work correctly.
“Even in court if you did something ‘wrong’, the senior lawyers would critique you in a constructive manner about your performance.
“It just comes with the territory in a provincial area and while the young lawyers aren’t spoon feed, they will be helped after court on how they might have done something incorrectly or other ways to address a topic or issue, which is really the best education a new lawyer can receive.”
Areas of work for lawyers
While there are lawyers who work in particular fields, many still work in general practice to bolster the workload and in the provinces generally a lawyer will have skills across a broad range, says Mr Rai.
“I could be doing a criminal law trial one week and the next, asset or estate planning with farming clients on substantial assets. The following week it might involve working on leases for the regional or district council, so totally different areas and not operating at a low level, which can bring about its own challenges.
“It does mean lawyers have to put in long hours covering a range of areas whereas it could have been easier, although not as economically sound, to lock myself into one area of practice and just maintain that.”
Robert England, who works as partner at the Eltham office of Thomson, O’Neil & Co, says while the collegiality among lawyers in the regions may not be as strong as it was in previous years, the tradition of assisting fellow lawyers is still there in some regard.
“It works for the benefit of the clientele, I suppose, because it is a different situation when you know you can converse with fellow lawyers, particularly if you need to convey an issue which has arisen.
“An example was when we had some company representatives visiting the area, we hosted a luncheon and invited fellow South Taranaki lawyers and gave a chance for us all as a group to discuss the important issues in Taranaki with the company.
“Now that is not to the disadvantage of the client obviously, and the better everyone is with the knowledge of certain issues, the better the relationships are between client and lawyers and the lawyer fraternity itself.”
Mr Rai says the myth that resources for lawyers are limited because they work in a rural area or a small town is no longer valid in today’s world.
“I think in the old days there might have been an element of truth there because libraries were so expensive to update and maintain.
“Although every law firm had its library, and there was a Law Society library, it was probably not at the level of libraries in the big cities, so it was challenging at times to be able to put together the research.
“Of course now we all access those same resources online via digital services.”