Otago has a strong Independent Bar. It is a work style that particularly suits lawyers who are managing the demands of practising law in sync with other commitments such as being involved with Otago University, being a member of various boards or writing books.
That is, perhaps, the appeal of not being a law firm partner or running a general law practice; a barrister is able to focus on being a ‘specialist advocate and litigation advisor,’ as Dr Royden Somerville QC writes in the chapter ‘The Independent Bar in Otago’ in the book Occupied Lawfully.
LawTalk met the lawyers at Barristers Chambers in Dunedin. The faces have changed over the years and today’s version of Chambers includes:
- Dr Royden Somerville QC,
- Len Andersen,
- Alison Douglass,
- Cate Andersen,
- Will Anglin.
Dr Somerville returned to Otago in 1979 to set up a chambers as a barrister sole after practising law in New Plymouth as a partner in Middleton Young and Co.
He specialises in public and environmental law. He is also the Chancellor at the University of Otago, and over the years has been involved in a wide range of professional and community organisations. He has also lectured at the University of Otago in environment law.
“Many barristers are heavily involved with their community and the profession,” he says.
“Being a member of Barristers Chambers is a very collegial way of practising law. It works well in the sense that we can share facilities including the library and administrative services. At this chambers we have the benefit of everyone practising in discrete areas. We can discuss with each other developments in the law and common issues. Most of us have been involved with continuing education and litigation skills.”
Instructions or work for barristers generally comes via a solicitor from a law firm. Confidentiality is paramount, so it would not be uncommon for barristers sharing a chambers to be unaware of what each other is working on during the course of a week.
A barrister, a lecturer and a president
Len Andersen is a high-profile barrister who moved to Dunedin from Whakatane in 1991. He had known Royden Somerville for some time and the pair set up Barristers Chambers. It changed location a couple of times and at one stage there were about 16 barristers under the same roof.
Mr Andersen is also the President of the Criminal Bar Association and he lectures in advocacy and forensic law at the University of Otago.
He says while sharing resources in Chambers is an obvious cost-cutting advantage, there are many other reasons to coexist.
“I think people can get a bit lonely if they work alone. I also think that to some extent it probably attracts work when you’ve got a group of barristers all specialising in different areas. There is some overlapping in what we do but across the board we have most things covered,” Len says.
Len Andersen describes himself as more of a general practitioner in that he does civil, criminal work, some resource management act work and even Family Court work which is generally related to property.
Family in chambers
Mr Andersen’s daughter Cate followed in her father’s footsteps and after practising criminal law in Tauranga, she made the move to Dunedin to join Barristers Chambers.
“That’s worked out remarkably well because she had worked elsewhere first. She came here independent, not reliant on me at all,” he says.
That’s backed up by Cate.
“I grew up in Whakatane and a job came up in Tauranga. I didn’t want to start practising law around my father who had previously practised in Whakatane. I wanted to develop my own style away from his watchful eye,” Cate says.
Like his colleagues, Len Andersen appears to have his hands on a wide range of work but as he says he has a low threshold for boredom, therefore mixing practising law with lecturing and heading the Criminal Bar Association is manageable.
“There’s been the occasional clash with lecturing but really as long as you know where you’re going to be on any given date, things work out. The courts are quite flexible. It’s once you’ve got a date for court, changing that date could be difficult, so you learn to manage your time well,” Len says.
Managing the threat of burnout
He’s never felt any symptoms of burnout and he does delegate work to his daughter which takes some pressure off him.
“But as Cate has developed her practice she too has become busy and has less time to help me. Sometimes you do have to turn work away,” Len says.
A common scenario highlighting the independence of a barrister is when a law firm will hire a barrister to give a client advice that might not be entirely palatable for the firm.
“That distances the firm from the advice because it’s independent and therefore the client won’t hold the advice given against the law firm,” he says.
He says that might also mean the barrister is hired to carry out the proceedings. "You’re essentially a hired gun,” he says.
Juggling multiple projects
Alison Douglass has been practising law for over 30 years and 20 of those were in Wellington, which included partnership at the firm Tripe Matthews Feist.
She went to the Bar in 2008. In 2011 her family moved to Dunedin but Alison continued to work out of Wellington from Waterfront Chambers as a ‘door tenant.’ “That means you don’t have a room or office but you do have the use of the space,” she says.
Alison Douglass joined Barristers Chambers in 2012.
“I always saw myself as a flexible barrister and this has worked out really well. It was Roy (Royden Somerville QC) who got me interested in applying for an international research fellowship with the Law Foundation, which was a medical law project.”
This resulted in Alison writing the law reform paper "Mental Capacity: Updating New Zealand’s Law and Practice", which was published in 2016.
“It was the last thing I expected to end up doing when I arrived in Dunedin, but as a practising lawyer with a particular interest in health and disability law I was able to look at the issues around mental capacity – the rights and interests of people with disabilities and how doctors assess their mental capacity,” she says.
The Law Foundation is also funding work on a book she is writing which is a practical guide for both doctors and lawyers about assessing mental capacity, with the help of a psychiatrist and an ethicist.
Ms Douglass has a Master’s degree in Medical Ethics and is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago.
Most people on a Friday afternoon are attempting to wind down from their working week but on the day of the interviews, Ms Douglass was waiting to hear whether a High Court trial in Nelson involving estate litigation in relation to a will would go ahead.
And while that was going on in the background, there is the ongoing health and disability law work in Dunedin.
“I’m often, as a court-appointed lawyer, representing people with disabilities or who lack capacity under the Protection of Personal and Property Rights Act or people with intellectual disability who are under compulsory care. The Family Court has a wide jurisdiction and this is one area of the court where I have spent many years representing people in those situations,” she says.
She also has a general litigation practice which takes her into the Employment Court, along with civil and estate litigation in the High Court.
Do the things that interest and stimulate
It does sound like a juggling act that few could or would want to do but as she explains, being a barrister does provide a lot of opportunities.
“When you’ve been practising for a while, you can focus on the things that interest and stimulate you. It’s about balancing things so that it is possible to do this. I’m really interested in ethics and for several years I was the chair of the advisory committee on assisted reproductive technology for the Minster of Health. I finished that role last year. It brought together law policy and ethics,” she says.
Alison Douglass says there does have to be plenty of what she calls ‘bread and butter work’ to justify her existence.
“However, being in Chambers as a sole practitioner means I have relatively low overheads. It’s a real advantage. And I particularly like the collegiality here. Even though we are all doing different things, I don’t hesitate to wander into Len’s office and borrow his text books or discuss a procedural aspect of court litigation I might have on. He’s very forthcoming and helpful and similarly with Roy, we talk about a lot of things. It’s very important not to become isolated, you need that collegiality and sense of being able to sound people out on troubling cases.”
The barristers and their staff share morning teas and celebrate milestones, and when LawTalk visited they were sharing traditional southern cheese rolls.
They also share the photocopier and printer machine, so privacy must be respected. “We’re very vigilant with that,” Ms Douglass says.
“I also have the help of a semi-retired legal secretary who is based in Wellington. I worked with Judy for many years when I was based in the Capital. It’s a really wonderful relationship,” she says.
The biggest employers in Dunedin are the University, the City Council the Otago Regional Council and the District Health Board.
The city has a relatively small legal community so conflict of interest is something law firms and barristers are constantly having to be aware of and guarded from.
As Alison explains, the independence of being a barrister is an advantage, and they are often able to fill those gaps.
“Law firms might come to us for an independent opinion on a legal issue or case they’re considering taking on,” she says.
Another advantage of being a barrister in chambers is that they don’t hold trust accounts, don’t manage money and pay far less in professional indemnity insurance.
“Having been a partner in a law firm. I don’t miss partner meetings. I don’t miss having to worry about managing other people’s money,” she says.
Alison Douglass was recently appointed deputy chair of the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. It’s a part-time judicial role and brings together the 21 health professions.
The junior who’s in his fifties
Will Anglin moved his family to Dunedin from Texas almost 15 years ago. He later studied law at age 50 after many years working as a software engineer, which included creating companies from scratch.
“When I started law school, my daughter was in year 10, so I was back to school while she was nearing graduation,” he says.
Towards the end of 2015, Mr Anglin joined the chambers as a junior barrister and much of his current work involves assisting Dr Somerville.
While some might be, he is not bothered by the title “junior”.
“I’m pretty ego-free so I don’t care. It might bother Alison more than it bothers me as she has said ‘I can’t call you my junior because you’re older than I am’,” he says.
Will joined Barristers Chambers at the same time as Cate Andersen so for a while the members dined out on jokes such as the ‘Will and Cate show’ in a nod to the Royal couple.
As a software engineer he wrote code and created companies, and while it may not seem as if that profession has anything in common with the law profession, loosely it does.
“I see it as problem-solving but using a different skill set. The things I work on now are more meaningful personally, such as on legal issues related to climate change. In software, developers often create some new widget, and their marketing teams then go about trying to find a problem to solve with it. It’s backwards.
“In my view, there is a lot of software that gets developed that’s not as important socially in comparison; for example, promoting a national environmental standard for small-scale wind so that New Zealand can accelerate the development of renewable energy generation. If we can reduce our demands on hydro, we have cleaner rivers,” Will says.
Dr Somerville says he relies heavily on Will Anglin’s scientific skills for some of the legal work they are both involved with.
Administrative support is essential and all of the barristers have reliable and experienced personal assistants who are as flexible as the lawyers. The staff members have all been with chambers for many years.
LawTalk detected a ‘family’ atmosphere, and a real sense of shared history.
Dr Somerville is supported by his personal assistant Maureen Viggo, and his wife Lee who manages his accounts and works alongside him as an editor. They have been with him and Chambers since the beginning. Len Andersen is supported by Angela Taylor, his legal executive, and Donna Harris is office administrator for chambers and supports Alison Douglass as her personal assistant. A law student works two hours a day doing office junior duties and deliveries but also gaining important experience in the operation of a barristers’ chambers.