New Zealand Law Society - Green pastures

Green pastures

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Masterton's golden shears statue

"Welcome to Masterton – home of the Golden Shears" the signs at the town entrance say.

The world's premiere shearing and wool handling competition, the Golden Shears is held in Masterton in around March each year.

That agricultural focus sums up a lot of what this Wairarapa town is about.

"There is a large surrounding farming district, so that feeds a lot into Masterton," says Jessie Hunt, the Wairarapa representative on the Law Society's Wellington branch Council.

"That means that a big area of legal practice in Masterton is related to the farming community. There's a lot of succession planning, trusts, wills, farm purchase and sale … That would take up a large percentage of the work of the more commercially-based firms.

"Farming drives everything. When times are good, everything's good I guess. When they're not so good, it's not so great for everyone."

So, what are times like at the moment?

"Not so bad," Ms Hunt says. "Dairy has affected everyone significantly, but sheep and beef farmers aren't doing too badly – not as badly as it has been historically – so things are pretty good.

"There are a lot of Aucklanders buying property in Masterton and the Wairarapa, and lots of people coming over the hill and buying property to travel over to work and as weekend homes.

Farming, while the backbone of the district economically, is not the area's only industry. There is tourism and there is horticulture, although many of the market gardens and orchards have disappeared.

And there is the wine industry, which stretches from Martinborough to north of Masterton.

While Martinborough wines have established their reputation for excellence, it may be that a Masterton winery is one of the region's best-kept secrets.

Lansdowne Estate is producing world class wines that are winning awards at the prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition. The history goes back to 1895, when the Beetham family planted vines on their Masterton land. When Masterton went "dry" in 1908, the flourishing winery had to close. It would be the early 2000s before planting began again, with Pinot and Syrah varieties being established.

Visitors to the Wairarapa is another big feature of the district. "It's close enough to Wellington for people to visit," Ms Hunt says, "and there are a lot coming over."

As well as lawyers, "I think Masterton sustains a good population of other professionals, such as accountants, surveyors, valuers and farm consultants."

A really lovely welcoming community

"I just love it out here," says barrister Susie Barnes about lawyering in the Wairarapa.

Ms Barnes came back to New Zealand in January 2015 to begin her career in law in this country.

"I got a job in a small firm in Carterton, Belvedere Law. It's been a lovely community to come to – a really welcoming community.

"I grew up in Lower Hutt and most of my family is in Wellington, and we were keen to be close to them. But we really liked living in the country when we lived in Australia, and when we lived in France I lived in a small town as well, so the Wairarapa appealed to us."

After studying law, mainly at Otago University, then completing her degree at summer school at Victoria University, Ms Barnes worked in criminal law in Sydney for three years then took a break from the profession. She travelled to France and found herself staying there for six and a half years. She married a Frenchman and they had children.

However "I never took my eye off the ball in terms of coming back to New Zealand".

She came back into the law in New Zealand via a job as a solicitor in the New South Wales regional centre of Wagga Wagga. Then after three years, she moved to the Wairarapa and Belvedere Law.

"I've got young children. I was just really attracted to the idea of being in a smaller centre. I think it's quite good in terms of the kind of law I do as well. There's often a big need in the smaller communities. You get lots of work, so you're busy."

The Wairarapa, she says "is a fantastic place, it really is. It's just stunning –

  • stunning views;
  • affordable housing;
  • great beaches
  • the balloon festival
  • beach horse racing at Castlepoint;
  • food and wine festivals and vineyards and sport;
  • safety with the kids, you can give them a lot of freedom; and
  • great bush rugby for my kids – it's fantastic.

"And you've still got the proximity to Wellington when you want the buzz of the city."

Ms Barnes has just been approved to practice on her own and began practising as a barrister sole in criminal and family law on 1 August.

"I'm very excited about that. It's great. It's busy. There's a huge need for family lawyers particularly. We've got more work than we can handle.

Photo of Susie Barnes
Susie Barnes

"There's some fantastic lawyers over here, extremely experienced and it's a small enough community that you can get to know everybody.

"We've got a great bench over here too – great judges that come over. I think we're really lucky over here actually. It's excellent."

The profession in the Wairarapa is very collegial, Ms Barnes says, "and that's one of the things I really love about lawyering generally. That's something that drew me back to law after my break and keeps me here. I love that – the exchange of ideas and camaraderie.

"I love being back in the law. I really missed it.

"I needed a break when I took the break. I was at that three-year mark. I was tired. It was really long hours and I was really stressed. I thought 'maybe this isn't for me'. So I had a bit of a break and did other things.

"However, I stayed out of the law much longer than I wanted to, just because my kids were young then and I knew it wasn't the time to get back into it.

"I spent a lot of years plotting it, and thinking 'yes, I do love this as a career path for lots of reasons – one being I think it's a career path with a huge amount of longevity and evolution'.

"There's always new things to learn. It's always changing. And with increased experience you have increased value, whereas in a lot of other jobs as you get to a certain age you get less valuable. Law is very different from that. You've got the potential to have a long, fulfilling career and I realised that I simply needed to be more conscientious at managing the challenges such as stress and time pressures.

"I'm always working on that ... and when I'm working with younger lawyers as well, I talk a lot to them about that – how you have to look after yourself, manage stress, and the importance of mentors.

"I think it's important to maintain an awareness that it's not great for the quality of your work to be working all the time. You don't do your best work when you're trying to flog yourself to work more than you should. So keeping that awareness that doing other things and having a break is better for your clients, better for your own health, better for your family is important."

Although Ms Barnes is Wairarapa-based, which is "a great place to live and work", she also has the benefit of travelling over the hill to the capital, with the criminal work for jury trials that are in Wellington, "so it's an opportunity to connect with the broader Wellington bar as well, which is always nice".

Struck by an irony

Mediator and barrister Grant Allan found, in the early 1990s, that he was absolutely flat out. He and his wife Adrienne's first child, Mirren, was very young, and Jack, their second child, had just been born.

"I was tremendously busy, particularly in the family law field representing children – although I practised law in quite a few fields, criminal, civil, always litigation focused.

"One day, I thought: 'here I am representing all these children but I'm not getting as much time as I would like with our own'. The irony of that struck me.

"Adrienne and I had a good talk about it and we thought: 'well, what do we want to do?'"

They found a lifestyle block a few kilometres from the Masterton township, and decided to move there, despite that decision having some risk and uncertainty attached.

"We thought coming here and living here, we might be able to get a better balance.

Photo of Grant Allen
Grant Allan

"My office is literally above the garage so when the children were young, I could toddle downstairs, spend time caring for them and read them a story and then, if I needed to do more work that night, when they were tucked into bed, I could go back up to the office.

"We just shifted the focus which became 'our family first' and work had to fit around it, rather than the other way round. That was and still is very important.

"I'll tell you a very brief story about how I came to dwell on this need for balance. Back then I had a young university student do some work for me around our property. I got talking to him and realised that his father was a very well respected and well-known top Wellington lawyer who I knew all regarded as a great guy.

"The student said to me: 'Oh, so you know of my father. We didn't see a lot of him when I was growing up.' He didn't say it with bitterness but definitely with some regret.

"I thought: 'That's got to be wrong, doesn't it! The work can't be that important.'

"So that's what the motivation was to come here. We didn't know how we were going to survive because I'd been a partner in a law firm in the Hutt Valley. They were good people and a good partnership but the prospect of living in the Wairarapa countryside became very appealing.

"So we came and lived here, and we survived. I continued to do litigation work in the lower North Island – Manawatu, Wellington, and here of course.

"We kept the focus on family life and developing the property. It was a sheep paddock with a bit of bush when we arrived. Adrienne has done wonderful things with the garden. I'm the tree man having planted hundreds of trees to supplement our three acres of totara bush.

"New developments in technology at the time we moved here proved fortunate. When we first came here I had literally one of those brick cell phones and a fax machine which was very important back then. When email came along, it revolutionised things really in terms of working from home, which I have now done for over 20 years.

"Most of my work was done here in the home office and I'd go out to meet solicitors and their clients as and when necessary.

"I had tremendous support, I would like to say, from the New Zealand Law Society Library at the Wellington High Court. When I needed research, I got fantastic service from them. Robin Anderson and his staff [at the Wellington library] have just been fantastic over the years.

"So that's how we ended up here and we have no regrets about coming and staying."

Although most of his work was in Wellington, Manawatu, Hutt Valley and Kapiti Coast "I got support here too from local lawyers, including when I started doing mediation work, for which I'm grateful.

"Wairarapa is a unique legal community. It's got a good group of lawyers in practice here.

"Some of the law firms here are very old. They go back, not quite to the Treaty of Waitangi but not too many years later."

Are there any unique things about lawyering in the Wairarapa?

"I think there are some. I think's there's a very good expectation in the Wairarapa that lawyers will still talk with each other about how they can try to sort things out between themselves, which I find is a strong provincial tradition.

"It touches upon my mediation work because I say mediation is just another variation of what New Zealand lawyers have been doing for years and that is talking with each other on a 'without prejudice' basis to try and find pragmatic solutions for their clients," Mr Allan says.

"There is still the long tradition here of the annual bar dinner". This year's bar dinner will be the 64th.

"And we've also got another strength here in that the relationships of the clients with their solicitor is often very, very strong.

"These involve long-term relationships including farming families who have been clients of same law firm since whenever anyone can remember. Indeed I am sure that even Wairarapa's leading criminal lawyer, Jock Blathwayt, has equivalents of Rumpole's Timson clan!

"I think this is a real strength as these are lawyers who know their clients in a much fuller way because of those very special and rewarding long-term family relationships they have.

"That's something I think is true of the provinces generally but particularly in places like the Wairarapa."

Following his litigation-focused practice of many years, Mr Allan moved into mediation and his work is almost exclusively mediating these days.

"I sometimes get roped in to assist with some litigation but it's only very occasionally now. It's generally as a result of an occasional court appointment or I'm in some sort of independent role where the other lawyers have organised me to be involved," he says.

Commuting by train

Based in the country just a few kilometres from the Masterton town centre, barrister Andra Mobberley has been living in the Wairarapa for 8 years.

For most of this time, she commuted by train (about a 90 minute journey) to Wellington, where she worked for Crown Law for five years and then was the principal solicitor at the Department of Corrections for two years. Before that, she worked for eight years as a prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Last October, she went out on her own as a barrister.

Since then most of her work has been public law cases in New Zealand, as well as international work, which involves both travel overseas and working remotely from the Wairarapa.

Photo of Andrea Mobberley
Andra Mobberley

"I'm just about to start very interesting public law cases that are Wairarapa-based. They are at the early stages, so it's too early to say what they're about."

She has discovered that "the provinces hold as many interesting legal challenges as working in the main centres. I think there's an exciting opportunity to practise in the provinces. It's certainly one that I've overlooked [in the past] myself," Ms Mobberley says.

Her main focus at the moment is public law and international human rights and international criminal law. It is a practice that she can operate from anywhere in the world. She will also be doing more criminal law in New Zealand and is one of New Zealand's extradition specialists.

"A lot of [work] can be done remotely now, using computers, Skype … I deal with an international funder from the [United] States who wants to do a lot of discussions by WhatsApp." WhatsApp is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows people to exchange messages using end-to-end encryption to protect messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents, and calls.

"People have an expectation now that that's the way that business will be done. It's a very long way from those days of having fax machines and writing letters."

That allows people to be based in the provinces, and work for clients anywhere in the world, or anywhere in New Zealand.

"I think the thing about public law is that the issues arise in every community and they are no less important in a small community than they are in a central city. But it just may be that they are not uncovered as quickly.

"Public law cases in the Wairarapa have very important principles at stake and they are just as important in human rights terms as some of the international law cases. There is no difference in the imperatives involved in the case. The scale is different but the fundamental imperative is the same. I'm kind of lucky to do the work that I do."

She says that her areas of work involve experts and the other professionals who are generally not in one location anyway. So telephone and AVL conferences are an important business tool.

So why did she choose to live in the Wairarapa?

"I grew up in what was north of Auckland. I grew up in Coatesville, which was quite rural when I was a kid. It's now part of Auckland.

"We have horses. Children and horses and fast cars and people racing around the place don't mix."

She had lived in Wellington when she first worked as a Crown Counsel at Crown Law in the 1990s.

"I knew the Wairarapa. So when I came back from overseas and I was going to be … working with Crown Law, I knew that the better location would be the Wairarapa … for the elusive work-life balance.

"Most days I caught the train. It's got the internet, so there's a certain amount of non-confidential work that you can do on the train. If you structure it correctly, there's a luxury in catching the train. You can't take phone calls, and you can do a lot of reading, and get a lot of work done.

"It creates a two-hour slot of time at the beginning and the end of the day. I found it incredibly useful because I did all my planning in the morning in the way in on the train so I was ready to go for the day or for the week, and then would already be productive when I arrived at work.

"And then on the way home, I would be able to take anything that I hadn't been able to get to, and just have that private time."

Some of the complex analysis required when working on matters such as extradition – which are often very complex and heavily preparation-based – can be difficult to work on in a busy office environment with lots of activity.

"But that reflection on the train, I found to be quite important time.

"I certainly wouldn't have lived here if I had to drive every day. That would have ruled out the Wairarapa."

The Masterton area

"It's got a true element of rural life still. I think every country does something particularly well … I think one of the quintessential elements of New Zealand is the ability to live a relatively uncomplicated rural lifestyle.

"That's a bit of a privilege. I don't think there are many countries in the world that offer that opportunity.

"I like the feeling of being in the provinces. I like the opportunities that are in the provinces. I like the fact that the provinces are full of interesting people who've done interesting things who don't self-promote and you have to be a part of the community in order to have the sorts of conversations that you have to find those people … They don't put a notice on the board saying 'I'm an Olympic silver medalist' or 'I've got a recording studio and I travel the world for six months of the year recording international artists'.

"People don't advertise that, but the quality of activity and the quality of thought is here, and I like that. I like that low-key approach."

She is relatively new to practising law in the Wairarapa, but is impressed with the quality of and skills of some of the professionals she has met.

"I'm looking forward to being more closely associated with practice in the Wairarapa," Ms Mobberley says.

Returning home

Now a partner of Gibson Sheat, Julie Millar grew up in Gladstone, some 15 minutes' drive east of Masterton.

Photo of Julie Millar
Julie Millar

"We were on a lifestyle block surrounded by farms. But my parents weren't farmers. They had rest homes and hospitals.

"I enrolled in university to do a history degree and was promptly told by my parents that wouldn't be good enough, so I needed to do something that was actually going to get me a job, and enrolled in law as well."

Most of her degree was undertaken at Victoria University, although the final part was at California Western School of Law, taking up the exchange programme that they offered. Ms Millar continued studying history alongside law, graduating with a BA LLB.

Her first job after graduating was with Gawith Burridge in Masterton. From there, she went to Gibson Sheat in Lower Hutt. But Ms Millar was destined to return to Masterton, joining Logan Gold Walsh.

Then just over a year ago, on 1 August 2015, Logan Gold Walsh and Gibson Sheat merged, becoming Gibson Sheat.

How do you find practising in Masterton?

"It's a provincial centre and it has all the features commonly found in a provincial centre," says Ms Millar, who has been practising law now for nearly 12 years, most of it in the town.

"You can be called about a domestic violence issue one moment and then about a fencing dispute and shortly after receive a call from someone wanting to purchase a farm.

"You encounter a cross section of issues, so you can become, if you're not careful, a jack of all trades and a master of none."

But Ms Millar does have some specialties: trusts, farm succession and relationship property.

And she was, until recently, the Wairarapa representative on the NZLS Wellington branch Council.

Does the Wairarapa have some unique features?

"We are basically dairy, sheep and beef based. We do have a bit of viticulture too.

"There's an increase in economic activity at the moment. According to the newspaper [the Wairarapa Times-Age] Masterton is 3% up on the same time last year, so things may be looking good for the region.

"We're getting a lot more Aucklanders and outside people coming in. It's affordable to buy a house here."

If you were talking to law students, would you recommend going to places like Masterton?

"Absolutely. In my first job at Gawith Burridge I learnt so much about all different aspects of law.

"I was thrown into the Family Court within, I think, the third week I was there. It was like: 'Here's a bunch of files. Go down and do the judge's list for these.'

"I wouldn't have received that kind of experience in a bigger firm in a city. I would encourage people to start with a smaller firm in a provincial area to get that experience."

What about as a partner? Is it a good place to be in the provinces?

"It's busy, it's really busy, because I'm also involved in a whole bunch of groups outside of work.

"It's rewarding work, definitely," she says.

"My husband has a business here, a commercial laundry. Masterton has got everything that both of us enjoy: it's got the mountains and I'm into cycling and running so that's great.

"You're always meeting someone you know in the supermarket or wherever, and you feel like you're supported in the community.

"The Tararuas are fantastic. Both my husband and I are involved in Search and Rescue. It's quite good being able to contribute to that organisation and get into the hills. We get called to search for and rescue people in all sorts of places: the Tararuas, the south coast, and even urban areas, but not often in Masterton."

In-house in Masterton

One of the Wairarapa's primary industries is forestry, and one of New Zealand's leading – if not the leading – forestry investment managers is Masterton-based Forest Enterprises Ltd.

Gordon Wong is the company's legal services director.

"I don't think there are too many in-house lawyers in Masterton. I'm one of a rare breed here," he says.

Photo of Gordon Wong
Gordon Wong

Mr Wong joined Forest Enterprises in April 2014 after acting for the company in private practice for about 23 years.

"So it's a case of leaving private practice to join my biggest client. I was in private practice in Wellington. The last firm I was with was Duncan Cotterill, where I was a commercial partner.

"I've been a partner in various firms. The first partnership I joined was Simpson Grierson and it was there I advised Forest Enterprises on the company's innovative investment structures. I've also had other in-house roles at Telecom and at Telstra Clear where I was general counsel and regulatory manager. "This role at Forest Enterprises is quite different, because I've got skin in the game. I've got a shareholding in the company and I'm also a director on the Forest Enterprises board."

Mr Wong has two homes. He has bought a house in Greytown, which is his base during the week, and he has a house in Khandallah, where he works on Mondays and any other days he may need to be in Wellington. "I call the study in our Khandallah home the Forest Enterprises Wellington Office!"

"I've got the best of both worlds," he says.

"When I feel like being cosmopolitan I line up all my meetings in Wellington CBD for the week day I'm there, and then I enjoy the semi-rural life here in the Wairarapa.

"Greytown is absolutely beautiful. I'm really enjoying living there during the week and working in the Masterton offices of Forest Enterprises."

How do you find lawyering in Masterton?

"The most exciting part of working in Masterton and being in-house is just being very close to the forests that we manage here in the Wairarapa," Mr Wong says.

"I've always preferred being a corporate lawyer, being in-house, because you get involved in all aspects of the business and so you build up that industry knowledge. We've got highly qualified people here – a very experienced Managing Director, accountants, marketing and customer service managers as well as the forestry experts. I'm not just working with commercial people; I'm also working with foresters who spend most of their time out in the field.

"At the same time, I do miss the collegiality of a large law firm. It can be quite an isolating experience working in an industrial precinct of Masterton. But we continue our relationship with Duncan Cotterill and I brief work out to the firm. I do miss the opportunity to bounce ideas off people, and just being surrounded by other lawyers and sharing ideas and views.

"On the other hand when you're in-house you actually work in a truly multi-disciplinary environment. I think there's a lot more teamwork. Also I think I now have a better appreciation of the commercial drivers and the investment goals of our clients.

"You get involved in the practical aspects as well. As a director, I need to be out there in the forests. Now under the Health and Safety at Work Act there are a lot more responsibilities placed on directors in terms of due diligence and, for us, understanding the risks and hazards of forestry.

"Regularly I'm out there traipsing through the forest wearing gumboots and the high-vis vests talking to the silviculture contractors and logging crews, watching these massive harvesting roads being built and getting a really good understanding of the business of forestry. That's something I didn't have the advantage of when I was in private practice.

"I think it's the excitement of getting in the field and seeing the physical results of the legal work I do. When I first acted for Forest Enterprises, I was advising on structuring the investments and the offer of shares to new investors. Now I'm part of the company's management and preparing log sales and marketing contracts to see the good returns produced for our clients.

"It's great. I think I have matured from my early 'seedling' years as a lawyer and I'm now harvesting the growth in that legal knowledge", Mr Wong says.

Long service in Masterton

Long-serving Masterton lawyer Bruce Wagg has been a partner of Gawith Burridge and its predecessor firms for more than 30 years.

For him Masterton is well and truly home. He was born in the town and that is where he has practised since graduating LLB from Otago University and being admitted in 1980.

"My family settled here in the 1880s but I'm the first lawyer in the family.

"My father was a car salesman. He owned Waggs Garage. My great great grandfather was a coach builder. He's the first one who came here. My grandfather, certainly during the Second World War – he was in Gallipoli and Europe in the first World War – he built a lot of ambulances.

"The family came from a coach building role. When they stopped building coaches, they started selling cars."

Photo of Bruce Wagg
Bruce Wagg

After completing his "profs", Mr Wagg returned to Masterton to lawyer. "I started working with Daniel King Waddington & Stevens in 1979. There was a change in partnership while I was away – I went overseas for a year in 1981 – and then the Daniel King firm merged with Gawith Cunningham in 1988 or 1989.

"Tony Garstang came across to us in the early 2000s with Burridge & Co and that's when the Gawith Burridge name came about."

Both the Gawith and the Burridge names are firmly entrenched in the history of Masterton.

One of the earliest Wairarapa lawyers was C F Gawith, who was admitted in 1875, starting practice in Masterton at once. Soon after another lawyer, A R Bunny, was admitted in January 1876 and set himself up in Masterton that same year. That established the practice that would become Bunny Burridge & Douglas and then Burridge Blackwood Jaine & Leitch.

"When I first started it was the traditional way of doing things. You would do court work, and so I did criminal and family court work, plus doing conveyancing, so you just did a bit of everything," Mr Wagg says.

"You cut your teeth going down to the courts, getting summary judgments and pleading mitigations for clients who had pleaded guilty.

"When I first started, we were basically all partners and I think we may have had one staff solicitor, and we each had a secretary. Now you've got a lot more staff. There's far more pyramid shape to the way the firm is now than it was then."

Since then, many changes have taken place in the firm. "We don't do criminal court work any more. We don't do legal aid any more. We do quite a bit of employment law work here and we do relationship property settlements, where people don't have children. We don't get involved in any children work.

"As legal aid got more and more expensive, the government made cuts. It just became more and more difficult to make that part of the practice pay," Mr Wagg notes.

"We're a traditional family-type law firm that does everything for families and businesses – houses, estates, trusts, succession planning, commercial leases, occasional commercial building, that sort of stuff. It's very much that family, farming based work and a lot of urban conveyancing.

"Farm succession is one of the most difficult areas, because you generally have a farm that can only support one family and you've got a number of family members. Mum and dad want to look after all of the kids, and there's generally not enough to go round. So you either have to decide 'we sell the farm and divide it equally' or 'one of the kids gets preference because they can't afford to just take on the farm and then buy the siblings out'.

"That's probably one of the hardest things that you've got to work through and a lot of these things take a number of years to put together."

What's keeping you in Masterton now?

"Once I'd settled in here and started a family, it's a great place for family life. You're out of the city, you're only three minutes from the office – three and a half minutes if there are cars coming along the road that you have to wait for.

"It's close to Wellington, close to Hawke's Bay, Palmerston North, but you don't have all the hassles of the Wellington lifestyle.

"We certainly don't earn the incomes that the big firms in Wellington earn, but I think it makes up for it in having a country lifestyle. The beaches are reasonably close. We've got a place out at Castlepoint and we used to take the kids out there when they were young. We spend a lot of time out there.

"It's just a nice place to be."

Fantastic work-life balance

Wellington born and raised, Mr Jorgensen graduated with degrees in law and science from Victoria University in 2002. He practised in the capital for three and a half years before going on his OE, and then moving to Masterton.

The main reason Christian Jorgensen moved to Masterton was Kathryn, who is now his wife.

She is also a lawyer, an associate at Gibson Sheat. "She was already practising here. The previous year I was doing my OE and came back, and basically moved to the town where she was," Mr Jorgensen says.

"I applied for jobs and started working at Gawith Burridge – one of the larger firms in the region. I worked there for three years before I came here [Property Law Service Limited, where he is managing solicitor] in April 2011."

How do you find Masterton?

"It's great," he says. "The weather is brilliant and it's got a fantastic work-life balance, which is what I really like.

"We've got a lifestyle block, and when I think of what I have, compared with what my friends have laboured long and hard to get in Wellington, the value I see here is incredible, in terms of property and what you can buy.

"Coupled with the fact that it's five minutes to work, it's five minutes home. Home lunches are the norm and you're usually home well before night descends.

"You can also have that rural outlay. We've got a few sheep running around the paddocks, had some chickens and it is not unusual to see children riding their horses up and down the lane.

"It's a different kind of lifestyle that we wouldn't be able to have if we were in the city. I love it, definitely.

How do you find working in Masterton?

"The great thing about working in our boutique firm is that you get a lot of autonomy, which I may not have had working in a larger firm.

photo of Christian Jorgensen
Christian Jorgensen

"Working in a smaller provincial town, you can also see first-hand the differences you can make to people's lives and the wider community and it is not unusual to be saying 'howdy' to seemingly every third person who also happens to be a client. To some that can create a real sense of community.

"When I worked in Wellington, I also worked in a boutique firm. They specialised in resource management and construction law.

"Coming to the Wairarapa I initially hoped to remain a specialist practitioner, however the smaller region coupled with the downturn in the economy following the 2008 housing bubble burst did not give rise to that, so I ended up working in general practice, and I've stayed with general practice since.

"About 80% of our work at Property Law Service would be residential conveyancing, but we practise in all areas of law (other than criminal law). Our director (Graeme Reeves) also has a firm (Reeves Lawyers) based in Wellington. In addition to being a fantastic boss, Graeme and the staff solicitors at Reeves lawyers (Roula and Lisa) also come up at least one day most weeks and it is a pleasure to work with such great people along with our own superb team.

"It's certainly busy here and generally that means things are quite buoyant and people positive about things.

"A lot of our clients are first home buyers and it is rewarding working for those clients and seeing how excited they are to be purchasing their first home. The great thing about the Wairarapa is that good houses are still affordable. We haven't seen some of the crippling price increases Auckland, Wellington or some of the other main centres have been experiencing.

"It is also nice not to be constantly advising clients over risky unconditional offers where clients may also be overreaching themselves and their families financially just to make a competitive offer.

"I never dreamed I would end up being a provincial solicitor, but having experienced the benefits that comes with this, I think this will be a pretty hard lifestyle to beat," Mr Jorgensen says.

For me it's home

Practising in Masterton is great, according to sole practitioner Jessie Hunt.

"We've got a very close bar. It's really good collegiality-wise.

"I enjoy it. It's a great place to live and for me it's home. My parents are here and can help with my daughter as well. I wouldn't be able to do what I do without them."

Ms Hunt grew up in the Wairarapa, then moved to Christchurch to study law at Canterbury University. After two years there, she moved to Victoria University to finish her degree.

"I practised in Whakatane for two years before coming back home, and I've been here now for nearly 12 years."

When she moved back to the Wairarapa, Ms Hunt joined Gawith Burridge for a number of years. She then went out as a barrister, before moving into sole practice, specialising in family law.

"Now because I'm in family law, we're very close in terms of the practitioners who practise here," she says.

What's family practice like in Masterton?

"The Wairarapa hasn't got a good rap as far as family violence, and the community has worked quite hard to change that. They have put in place a number of programmes to try and curb the domestic violence stats," she says.

Photo of Jessie Hunt
Jessie Hunt

"We do have a group of people who struggle financially. The closing of the freezing works in the 1980s means we are now talking third generation beneficiaries as a result of that. So that still plays a part in the community.

"Employment is there, but people have got to look for it and want to work, so there are still a lot of underprivileged people living in Masterton.

"I guess that feeds into a lot of what I do unfortunately.

"However, there are a lot of very privileged people who need the help of the Family Court as well.

"We're a very tight group of practitioners. There's not many left of us. There's only seven family law practitioners left in the Wairarapa. That makes it incredibly difficult. There's just not enough of us to do the work.

"The issue I think – and it's going to become a national issue – is that there is going to be a shortage of Family Court lawyers because it simply doesn't pay enough. The legal aid rates don't pay enough to sustain that practice, and the work can be very difficult.

"The bigger firms don't have litigation practices any more. The financial reality for them is why should they employ someone who is going to earn $134 an hour doing legal aid work when they could make $250 an hour out of them doing conveyancing or drafting wills?"

"Most of the Family Court lawyers [in the Wairarapa] work as sole practitioners." There is just one who is not practising on their own account, Ms Hunt says.

One of the things that Masterton and the Wairarapa could do with is more family lawyers.

"It's tough at the moment," Ms Hunt says. "There's just so much work."

The Family Court sits fortnightly in Masterton. "We have a list day every second Monday, and Tuesday and Wednesday hearing dates. Any hearings of more than a day are held in Wellington. The District Court [non Family Court matters] runs in the alternate week.

"I think that it's one of the busiest courts in country, given the area that it services."

Woman lawyers have changed professional landscape

Women practitioners have changed the professional landscape in the Wairarapa – very much so in a good way, according to barrister Grant Allan.

"I think that, when I first came here, the acceptance of woman lawyers – like everywhere else in New Zealand – was something that the male dominated profession was still struggling with.

"I think that now women lawyers in the Wairarapa are very much at the forefront in respect of leadership of the profession and in being leading advocates.

"There are, and have been, excellent women lawyers here like the late Louise Elder – somebody who you just had to so admire for the quality of her advocacy for her clients – just tremendous."

Ms Elder had been a partner with Gawith Burridge, then moved to practise as a barrister and "was extraordinarily busy, probably too much so as we all tried to tell Louise as she coped with not only professional life but also the demands of caring for her three young girls". Reflecting on Louise's situation of juggling professional commitments and child care, Mr Allan said, begs the question of why the profession still seems to struggle with creating and providing fair work and professional development options for women that do not involve sacrifices that generally male practitioners do not have to make.

"Surely this is an unacceptable irony for a profession that spends so much time and energy advocating for clients as to what is fair and equitable!" Mr Allan said.

Louise was well established, particularly as a criminal lawyer and a family lawyer but she would have a go at anything. "All of her professional instincts were just so good. Louise was a natural which I am sure that all the other lawyers who worked with her in the area would affirm".

Mr Allan said he could go on and mention other names of women lawyers who have made and are making a positive difference to the profession in the Wairarapa – ranging from our longest serving woman lawyer, Juliet Cooke, down to more recent arrivals, but he said he particularly wanted to single out Louise because: "we all still very much miss her".

"I think there is great strength in women members of the profession in the Wairarapa.

"One would hope this means that addressing the clear unfairness that still exists within the profession in respect of women practitioners – if we men are honest about it – is, I would like to think, a bit further down the track here.

"I leave it to local women lawyers to tell you whether I'm right or wrong about that."

LawTalk did ask two woman lawyers about this.

"We do have a considerable number of female lawyers practising in the region. We have quite a few who are sole practitioners, and there's more coming in," Gibson Sheat partner Julie Millar says.

At her firm, "we've got three or four, depending on maternity leave cover.

"They seem to be coming in the bottom okay.

"It's always the issue of progressing through to partnership level. I think Debbie [Van Zyl of Gawith Burridge] and I are the only partners in firms who are female in the area."

Like Ms Millar, Jessie Hunt also points to the fact that "there are not a lot of women in partnership roles" in the Wairarapa.

Ms Hunt notes that there are just two female partners, Ms Millar and Ms Van Zyl.

In terms of leadership in the profession, both Ms Hunt and Ms Millar are playing a role. Ms Hunt is the current Wairarapa representative on the Law Society's Wellington branch Council. Ms Millar has just finished her term as the Wairarapa representative, and is also a partner of Gibson Sheat.

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