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Everyone knows everyone

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“Everyone knows everyone” in Nelson.

With a population just shy of 50,000, the sunshine-drenched city arcs along about 20km of south-eastern Tasman Bay coastline through a fertile crescent that seasonally provides the region with a plentiful harvest of fruit, fish, forestry and farm produce.

Fairly typical of New Zealand’s regional centres, Nelson’s economy was built on primary industry. The four “Fs” above – supplemented by ever-increasing tourism – continue to create jobs and attract people to the top-of-the-South, while a full range of public and service sectors strive to meet the growing region’s needs.

“When population increases and legitimate trade arises, professions may thrive,” wrote early Nelson settler F D Bell in 1844, as recorded in the (then) Nelson District Law Society-commissioned history of the local profession Beyond the Maungatapu.

“Until then, everybody turns his hand to what he can, and trusts in providence.”

Tangata whenua

Before the first New Zealand Company ships arrived in Wakatu/Nelson in 1841, the area was already well known to several local iwi – including Ngāti Kōata, Ngāti Rārua, Te Ātiawa, and Ngāti Tama – who prized the port’s internationally unique ‘Boulder Bank’-sheltered haven, and resource-rich whenua/land.

Descendants of those iwi are today represented by the Wakatū Incorporation, which boasts a current asset base of $270 million. It started with $11 million in 1977.

The whānau-owned company’s purpose is to “preserve and enhance our taonga for the benefit of current and future generations”, says Wakatū Incorporation General Counsel Kerensa Johnston.

Its several businesses operate in more than 40 countries, with stakeholders from across Nelson’s many export sectors – particularly viticulture, horticulture, agriculture and more-recently aquaculture.

“The legal work available here is extremely varied,” Ms Johnston says.

“Nelson is a base for many of New Zealand’s key primary industries and research and innovation clusters, including the Cawthron Institute and industry bodies such as Aquaculture New Zealand.

“There is considerable activity in commercial and residential property development, technology and new product development in all areas of primary production.”

Ms Johnston says lawyers specialising in these areas are in demand locally and nationally, and that lawyers with knowledge of overseas export markets – particularly China – will continue to be sought after.

“There is also a great deal of work in areas such as intellectual property, particularly as many businesses are focused on innovation, research and development and building brand value for New Zealand.”

Colonial connections

While the future of commercial lawyering in Nelson is primed to be innovative and internationally-focused, it’s worth considering the region’s colonial heritage. For many, links between the present and the past continue in ongoing relationships between long-established law firms and legacy clients.

In his foreword to Beyond the Maungatapu, Justice J A Doogue – who “had the pleasure of practising law in Nelson” for some 14 years – wrote that lawyers have worked tirelessly to serve the region’s population since its first colonists arrived and established enterprises.

Several Nelson firms maintain relationships with families and localities that now stretch more than 100 years across three centuries, Justice Doogue wrote.

For example, Pitt and Moore, one of Nelson’s oldest firms, has represented the families of Wakatū Incorporation since the late 1800s, with firm namesake Mr Pitt representing the whānau in early Native Land Court cases.

While practices rise and fall, and practitioners come and go, the law and legal practice themselves – like the haven-sheltering Boulder Bank – have remained a constant feature in the colonial history of Nelson and its inhabitants.

“Whatever the faults of the legal system and the human frailties of the individuals serving it, it continues to provide a structure for government and for a civilised society,” Justice Doogue wrote.


It’s lawyers’ use of the law to “deal with” faults and problems and to achieve clients’ goals that inspired one of Nelson’s newest lawyers, Jessie Gully, to join the profession.

Ms Gully, 25, was admitted in her hometown Nelson in August 2014. Sir Geoffrey Palmer (who also hails from the sunny city) was moving counsel.

She also claims a close connection with another of New Zealand’s most familiar legal names.

A sixth generation Nelsonian, Jessie is the great-great-great-niece of Hugh Gully – founding partner of law firm Bell Gully – who himself was the son of prominent 19th century New Zealand landscape painter John Gully.

Mr Hugh Gully was educated at Nelson College (established in 1856, and boasting some illustrious alumni, including atom-splitting scientist Sir Ernest Rutherford) before moving to Wellington where he was made Crown Prosecutor and established the partnership Bell, Gully and Myers – now Bell Gully.

A death notice from November 1907 reports: “Mr Gully was a man of personal magnetism and unfailing good nature. He had a great fund of natural wit and humour, and his unfaltering courtesy made him universally popular.”

“I don’t think any law graduate does it so they can start work and rolling in the money,” Ms Gully says.

Zindels is predominantly a legal aid firm, which “takes on a lot of clients that others don’t”.

Mostly working in family law – Care of Children Act applications and domestic violence cases – Ms Gully says she appreciates many of her clients’ “frustration” at having been shunted between this and that lawyer, with a hope that someone would accept their legally-aided case.

Admittedly still new to practice, Ms Gully says she doesn’t know the best way to improve access to justice for Nelson’s low wage earners, but she recognises there is a “real issue for many members of the public” who are in dire need of legal assistance.

The first six months of practice taught her a lot, particularly about time and client management.

“I took on too much. It’s important to learn what you can and can’t do,” she says.

“It’s important to make sure that your clients have a support network that is not ‘you’.”

Empathy and understanding is essential, but it can be easy to become “too emotionally invested”.

“What I can do is do my job – understand, interpret and apply the law – really well,” Ms Gully says.

She, with three other young women, works for Zindels Barristers and Solicitors, under partners Steven Zindel – who is also a Nelson College old boy – and Wayne Jones.

“Employing young lawyers is like a blood transfusion”, Mr Zindel says, acknowledging that senior practitioners’ enthusiasm and vigour can, after some years, tend to wane.

“The graduates are fresh on the law and it’s a joy to see them apply their skills to the cases at hand.”

Mr Zindel agrees with Ms Gully that there is a large and growing “justice gap” being felt by many in the top-of-the-South.

He says employing young staff can “plug those gaps more cheaply”.

“Many of our clients are young females,” he adds.

“They relate better to lawyers who are more like them, and they feel less embarrassed talking about their sensitive material.”

The other solicitors are Amy Gulbransen, 27, Sophie Barclay, 25, and law clerk Abigail Goodison.

Ms Barclay, a Wellingtonian, is the only one not originally from Nelson.

She says both her youth and gender help to build strong relationships with clients. She mostly works on legally-aided criminal defence files.

“Because you’re a young woman, you’re not really threatening to clients. You get told more things.

“I want to be there for the people who need help,” she says.

Some cases and clients can be difficult, and Ms Barclay admits she’s only human – it’s upsetting at times. But, she says, she quickly realised how important it is, as a criminal defence lawyer, to be “there for” her defendants.

“For them, it’s a really hard system.”

For Ms Goodison, it’s all about advocacy – “helping someone make their stand”.

“At some point in our lives we all experience being the ‘little guy’ and being downtrodden. In the legal profession, we get to do something about it.”

She laments, however, that the public’s perception of lawyering doesn’t always align with her own assessment of the job.

“I spoke to a stranger on a plane once when I was a student. When I told him my career plans he said ‘ah, you’re going to be a vulture then’.

“That’s really the opposite of what I’m trying to do.”

Practising well, better – the work-life balance

“There is so much on our doorstep here,” Ms Goodison says fondly of her home town.

“It’s only a short drive to Golden Bay, Abel Tasman and the Marlborough Sounds. I think we have the best parts of the bigger cities and the best parts of the smaller towns.”

“We’ve got this great balance,” she says, “waking up and hearing farm animals, even if you live close to town.”

The attraction of that “work-life balance” and a career away from the corporate ladder lured C & F Legal’s newest recruit Danny Wu to Nelson earlier this year.

He was also drawn by C & F’s job advertisement, which included the unusual offer of a $25,000 home loan deposit to the successful applicant (on top of a $90 – $110k salary).

C & F founding director Kathy Carr says they were looking for an innovative idea to encourage “the right type of talented young people we need to the region”.

Mr Wu says Nelson has a much more “relaxed vibe” and far “better work-life balance” than Auckland – where he worked for eight years, and often spent up to three hours in his car each day on the way to and home from the office. He walks to work now.

Two months since the move, it was “definitely the right choice”.

Still looking for a local property to purchase, he says he’s already bought a mountain bike and is looking forward to exploring more of Nelson Tasman’s cycle trails, beaches and bushwalks.

The home deposit offer binds Mr Wu to the firm for five years, but he likes the city, its surrounds, and the legal work environment so much already, he’s not remotely considered moving on before then.

Mostly practising civil and commercial litigation, he says Nelson provides a “breadth of work experiences”, which “keeps the job fresh” and “exercises different parts of the brain”.

“It’s the balanced lifestyle that I like – the fact that there is a lot of work available, but you are not working all the time,” he says.

“This weekend I am going tramping and kayaking in the Abel Tasman [National Park]”.

Other options

A career in law doesn’t have to involve arduous overtime and stress, NZLS Nelson branch Past President Rob Somerville says.

“There are other options. I like to manage a practice that isn’t high pressure.”

Now working almost exclusively in family law, Mr Somerville moved to Nelson from Whanganui in 1997 after starting a family of his own.

He says he came for “a good job” but stayed for the lifestyle, including the perk of a mere 900 metre daily commute.

Mr Somerville also holds offices as a District Inspector of Mental Health, and is trustee of the Nelson Restorative Justice Trust. He recently completed two years as President of the NZLS Nelson branch.

The city’s compact CBD and close-knit population has allowed restorative justice processes to flourish in Nelson, Mr Somerville says.

“Distances are less. Everyone knows everyone,” he says.

The logistics of bringing people together are easier to manage in a small centre.

And “good relationships”, maintained daily in Nelson’s little-but-busy justice block, between lawyers and judges, court staff, Police, and other stakeholders, means restorative justice conferences were often successful, Mr Somerville says.

The Nelson branch’s recently elected President Gerard Praat came to the city just like a lot of other lawyers for a work opportunity “and I am absolutely loving the work and the region,” he says.

A litigation lawyer, Mr Praat joined local firm Knapps Lawyers in 2003 after working in Wellington for several years. He was made a partner in 2006.

“I have found that the approach to work in Nelson (perhaps like many other provincial centres) is different to larger centres. Your involvement with clients is more personal and you become more like a trusted advisor and problem solver.

“This applies to all sorts of things even if the answers in the end are not legal.

“I have found that this style of practice is both engaging and rewarding,” he says.

People in provincial centres, perhaps more than more than anyone else, have benefitted from the advances in technology, “enabling us to stay in touch with our clients and other lawyers regardless of where they are and enabling us to stay up-to-date with developments in the law,” Mr Praat says.

Cathy Knight, Nelson branch Manager – whose time at the operational helm of the district’s legal community spans four decades – has seen many lawyers come, and some go, and agrees there’s something special about Nelson.

“There are many attractions to the Nelson region.

“People who come to Nelson from out of town choose to come here. They didn’t just end up here,” she says.

Visible history – building justice

If Nelson was to have a “justice precinct” it would undoubtedly be “Albion Square” – former site of Nelson’s Provincial Government Building, and current home to the Nelson Courthouse and several small legal practices.

Some larger firms and other practices, including Mr Somerville’s, flank Albion Square to the east and west, on both Bridge and Hardy Streets.

The Jacobean-styled Provincial Government Buildings, opened in 1861, served for more than 100 years as the city’s first courthouse.

By the 1960s, dilapidated by borer, the building was torn down to make room for the current Nelson Courthouse opened in 1974.

A plaque out front records the story of Albion Square, and the fact it hasn’t ever been vandalised is a sign of Nelsonians’ respect for the land’s history, the Ministry of Justice’s Nelson-Marlborough-West Coast Service Delivery Manager John Houghton says.

“Lots of visitors, all sorts, like to stop and read it.”

The courthouse architecture helps, too, Mr Houghton says, and has changed the way justice is delivered in Nelson – from a seemingly “closed environment” to one that is “friendly, open and welcoming”.

Built in the unadorned style of other regional New Zealand courthouses, the imposing, inward looking concrete building was given a makeover in 2010, with its new glass façade a symbol of “transparent justice”.

“It changes people’s attitudes toward the whole process.”

Tim Jeffcott, Hamish Fletcher Lawyers

It’s much easier being gay in 2016 than it was in 1970s Nelson, says Nelson College alumni and Hamish Fletcher Lawyers principal Tim Jeffcott.

A talented pianist who would perform at school assemblies, Mr Jeffcott entered Nelson College as a boarding student on an academic scholarship, but says he “left there with a real sense of not being appreciated, or acknowledged, for who I was, what I could do”.

When he wasn’t made prefect, and was pulled aside by a teacher to tell him to stop hanging out with a close, but entirely platonic, male friend because it “gave off the wrong look”, he knew he was being discriminated against.

Nearly 40 years later, Mr Jeffcott – who works mostly in commercial litigation and employment law – now counts Nelson College as one of his favourite clients.

He says the school has “come a long, long way”, building a culture of tolerance and inclusion – similar to what he experienced after Nelson, as an escaped international exchange student at school in Germany in the early 80s. “The progression has been huge”, Mr Jeffcott says, particularly noting the efforts of headmaster Gary O’Shea.

Starting university at Canterbury – “because my mum wanted me to” – life soon pirouetted him away from and then back to law school.

Suffering a stress fracture in his back shortly after moving to Melbourne to study dance, Mr Jeffcott’s ballet talent had to be sidelined, so he returned home and this time enrolled at law school in Auckland – “because I wanted to”.

His first job, at Phillips Fox, was under Helen Winkelmann and Sian Elias working on the long and complex Equiticorp case.

“I felt like a baby in a really complex trial. But those women were incredibly inspiring.”

Years of fast-paced, high-pressure practice in Auckland went by before he decided to take up a job in the less frantic top-of-the-South.

“Nelson is different, lovely” Mr Jeffcott says.

Although, the relatively quiet life of a small city clearly isn’t for everyone. When his now long-distance partner of 18 years Ronnie visits from the Super City and suggests that Nelson’s “can be a bit boring”, Mr Jeffcott simply says: “It’s just a matter of perspective, I suppose.”

Either way, Mr Jeffcott sees Nelson as a place of opportunity, where lawyers from all walks can build successful careers with fewer of the big cities’ stresses.

Jamieson Chambers, Luke Acland & Emma Riddell

Nelson’s newest legal enterprise is the shared office of barristers Luke Acland and Emma Riddell, named Jamieson Chambers for the historic Albion Square building it’s housed in.

Mr Acland, 36, was elected to Nelson City Council in 2013 and has practised litigation in Nelson since 2008 having moved from Wellington.

Ms Riddell began practise as a Crown Prosecutor and joined the independent bar in January. She is now focused on growing her own independent criminal defence practice.

Starting her career in Invercargill before embracing the more temperate climes of Tasman Bay, Ms Riddell, 29, comes with “significant” criminal law experience Mr Acland says.

She’s also a dedicated amateur boxer with one bout to her name and a close affiliation with Nelson’s community-based Victory Boxing Gym.

Criminal practice in smaller centres requires more generalist skills and gives lawyers opportunities to experience working on a diverse range of cases, Ms Riddell says. There simply aren’t many specialists nearby to instruct so we tend to experience it all, she says.

Likewise, practising in Nelson has the advantage of contact time with the court and judges.

“Being a barrister is a bit like being a pilot,” Mr Acland says. “Experience and good advocacy only comes with hours clocked up in court.” And, in regional centres like Nelson, “you get to know your judges really well”, which, through tailored submissions and approach, can benefit clients, he says.

“It’s a very collegial, close-knit profession here in Nelson,” he says.

Nelson Courthouse cell-phone missile incident

An incident in the Nelson District Court last year made national headlines for the wrong reasons. Court security was “seriously” breached when a member of the public gallery threw a cell phone at a Crown Prosecutor, concussing them.

Ministry of Justice Director of Security Darren Nicholas says security has been “beefed up” since the assault, with two additional part-time court security officers employed.

“This allows court security officers to have more visibility in court as well as carry out screening and responding to incidents.”

Mr Nicholas says security officers are now more aware of the potential risk that members of the gallery might throw objects in the court, although he notes that “incidents of this kind are extremely rare”.

LawTalk understands the young woman who threw the phone – allegedly in protest of her boyfriend being denied bail – was later convicted of assault, and, in recognition of courts’ special significance (and the importance of uncompromised legal advocacy), was sentenced, despite it being her first serious offence, to some time in prison.

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