New Zealand Law Society - Scooter-riding hunter’s Swan-song after 47 years in law

Scooter-riding hunter’s Swan-song after 47 years in law

By Jock Anderson

John Swan recently retired as principal of Wellington’s Swan Legal. A Wanganui Collegiate old boy, John graduated LLB from Victoria University and was admitted in 1975.

Working all his legal career in Wellington, he comes from an old-school legal tree. His father George was the Swan of Kensington Swan, who died in John’s first year at Victoria University.

“I was a late baby and his was an early death – he died at 64 when I was 18… Mother Moyra did not have a career of her own…”

George Swan founded Kensington Swan, formerly Swan Davies and McKay. Ian McKay – later Sir Ian of the Court of Appeal – had earlier worked his passage by sea to Britain to further his bagpipe studies. A love of the bagpipes was to be an important part of his life.

Sir Ian returned to New Zealand and a 39-year career with the firm, becoming partner in 1953 and senior partner in 1967. His clients included Independent Newspapers, a merger between Blundell Brothers (The Evening Post) and Wellington Newspapers (The Dominion).

The Davies in the firm was Tom Davies, a clerk in the State Advances Department, who handled resettlement loans for returning soldiers.

“Tom was one of the few people I am aware of who was grandfathered in. He was made a member of the Law Society without a law degree, largely because of the depth of his experience and my father suggesting it would be a good idea so he could bring him into partnership.

1960s media ownership battles

“My father worked for Rupert Murdoch, who came across the ditch to have a crack at The Dominion. Dad was well connected inside the National Party with Prime Minister Keith Holyoake. Holyoake didn’t want Murdoch anywhere near and passed the News Media Ownership Act in 1965, to keep New Zealand broadcasting and newspaper media in local ownership.

“Izard Weston were acting for Wellington Newspapers at the time. When I was still at school, one of Murdoch’s offsiders, Douglas Brass, came over to Wellington. There was a terrible storm, and I had to drive the car to the airport, having only just got my driver’s licence, with a bottle of gin and some tonic with my father to pick up Mr Brass.

“One of my regrets at that time is that I had been away at boarding school and was observing my father from a distance. And in my first year at university I was busy with what I missed out on at boarding school – sex, drink and rock and roll – I was making up.”

Estate planning and advertising

From being a partner at Swan Davies McKay, John went to an estate planning practice. “It was using whole of life insurance sales to fund establishment trusts and wills, which was a novel thing to do at the time.

“It was very difficult to get the confidence of the profession to give their clients’ affairs to an insurance agent, albeit with a couple of lawyers in the background…That fell apart and I went back into sole practice…”

“I formed a connection with the advertising industry through Dick Heron (later appointed to the High Court), who was a partner at Swan Davies McKay, and worked for new advertising firm Colenso, which was entertaining.

“It was the days of J Inglis Wright, Charles Haines, Ilotts and Mackay King. I had 20-odd years in the hey-day of the advertising industry acting for a whole range of companies, including Lion Breweries about 15 years, Telecom during its establishment years, Sanitarium and McDonalds.”

At the same time he was acting for a client who was buying rest homes, aggregating them and on-selling them – “the beginning of the aged-care industry.”

“I have been lucky to have been involved in three sectors – financial, advertising, and aged care. I’ve been able to use the personal relationships developed to give counsel to clients while maintaining friendship and the distinction between the professional work I had to do for people and the personal relationship.

John was a sole practitioner between 1979 and 1985, before spending five years at Perry Castle as partner and partnership chairman until 1990, followed by nearly four years as partner at Morrison Morpeth.

Eleven years followed as foundation partner of Gilbert Swan, before establishing and operating Swan Legal for 15 years from 2005.

Winding back

“A couple of years ago I wanted to wind the work back and always felt a responsibility to ensure that the people who looked after me, and people like me, would have their future legal affairs properly administered. I have been undertaking that process over the last year until I announced I was retiring in March and dropping my practising certificate.”

He has also been working as part-time in-house counsel in the age-care sector.

“When I retired my wife Christine and I were due to go to London where I have a son and family, but coronavirus intervened. In the meantime I have had a look around for some part-time positions because I don’t think I’m ready to stop entirely and I don’t play golf or bridge.”

Christine was a paediatric nurse at Wellington Hospital before going into practice nursing then returning to work in hospital cancer wards.

A legal family

Son George is a partner in London “Magic Circle” firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where he is a specialist insurance partner in the financial institutions sector group.

George got a Girdlers scholarship to go from Wanganui Collegiate for undergraduate study at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

The Worshipful Company of Girdlers (makers of belts and girdles) is one of the livery companies of the city of London. Girdlers were granted the right to regulate their trade in the city from 1327 and obtained a Royal Charter in 1449. They are no longer closely related to their original trade but the company continues its long tradition as a charitable body.

The Company of Girdlers – whose motto is Give Thanks To God – has had an association with New Zealand since 1933 and in 1952 resolved to set part of its income aside for the purpose of a scholarship to enable distinguished New Zealand school students to undertake a degree course at either Oxford or Cambridge University. It is now specifically Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

John subsequently sat on the New Zealand selection committee for the scholarship. “It gives you an insight into the talent that exists in New Zealand schools and the generosity of the Girdlers Company. They look for an all-rounder and there has been a remarkable collection of kids who have gone to take advantage of that scholarship.”

John’s other son Richard – also a lawyer and a proficient triathlete and marathon runner – is a recoveries consultant with the ANZ Bank. He has completed about 11 Taupō marathons and competed three times at the world ironman championships.

John’s great grandfather George Henry Swan, who was born in Sunderland, England, went to Australia in 1854 and then settled in New Zealand in 1857. He was a photographer, a brewer, mayor of Napier from 1885 to 1901 and a Member of Parliament for Napier from 1890 to 1893. He married actress Frances Stopher in 1884, and she died in Whanganui in 1939.

“My father was the first lawyer in the family. He had six sisters so he had to barrel out of Whanganui as quickly as he could and come to Victoria. The law has continued in the family, the brewery hasn’t, although my interest in beer remains,” says John.

Life alongside the law

An active athlete all his life, John says running “kept me sane and sober over the years”.

“I have run a lot of marathons, and been involved in the establishment of athletics clubs in Wellington. That was my primary interest until a knee gave up and I had it replaced. I am not running as much but still actively engaged in walking, swimming and the gym.”

He was chairman of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce for four years in the 1980s, a committee member of the Employers and Manufacturers Association and has been a long-time Friend of Old St Paul’s, the historic provisional cathedral of the Diocese of Wellington, bought for preservation by the government in 1967.

Having a son in the United Kingdom has enabled John and Christine to travel in Europe, where, as art lovers, they enjoy most of the major galleries in Britain, Spain and Portugal. “Our travel has a focus on arts and culture. I like the Impressionists – Van Gogh, Monet – and McCahon and Angus from a New Zealand perspective.”

“I don’t play any instruments, but have a grandchild aged seven who plays the trumpet and a 10-year-old who plays the violin. I graze through big bands, classical, blues, the Beatles and Stones.”

A Shakespeare fan, John celebrated his 70th birthday at an all-women cast matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet in Stratford Upon Avon, which his son George arranged.

“I like Clive James’ book Last Readings, where he identifies pieces of literature that impressed him. And Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and I am looking at Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander.”

Not much of a television watcher, he is keen on the series Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novel. A subscriber to The Economist and The Guardian, he hopes The Listener will publish again.

“We are lucky to have some good arthouse cinemas in Wellington. My family had a long association with theatre in New Zealand, particularly the development of professional theatre. My father partnered with Richard Campion in the establishment of the New Zealand Players, one of New Zealand’s first professional theatres. They brought Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier out in 1948, but audiences were not big enough to sustain.”

“I’ve ridden a 125cc Suzuki motor scooter for the last 15 years as my vehicle of choice – a marvellous machine and much more interesting than driving a motor car. I commuted on it from Kelburn to Johnsonville for a year. I also have a Kia Rio.”

John hunted Fiordland for 35 years, including last year, favouring his Parker Hale .303 conversion, fitted with a scope, but gave his guns away after a friend shot himself.

“The South Island has always intrigued me. I’ve got a mate who has a spot down in Fiordland at Lake McKerrow where we shot deer and pigs in my youth. I still get down there occasionally.”

Lake McKerrow drains, and is drained by, the Hollyford River. It is one of two lakes (along with Lake Alabaster) found in the lower reaches of the Hollyford River system, and the Hollyford Track, one of New Zealand’s most well-known and popular tramping tracks, follows its eastern shore for its full length.

“I have been lucky and had the opportunity at the outset to do my law degree part-time, which took a little longer.”

Who would you invite to dinner?

“I would enjoy having round for dinner some of the people I have worked with over the years, particularly from advertising. People like Terry King or Peter Cullinane, Mike Hutcheson, Graham Walsh – the CEO of Brother. People you feel comfortable with and enjoy conversations with or add value to the stuff they are doing. Rather than have the Pope to tea, which would be quite difficult.

“I’m a good red meat man and a barbecue person. There would be some innovative cuisine. I’m a very enthusiastic consumer of good food, with a good New Zealand Pinot or a better Australian Shiraz and some interesting dessert wine.”

After a lifetime in the law John says there’s really nothing else he would rather do, except be a successful creative in an advertising agency, “but that might have been more social than practical.”

“I enjoy words and reading. I’ve been able to enjoy a lot of that stuff and contribute in some way in a compliance manner to effective communications.

“What I discovered when I left the law for a period, and last year when doing in-house corporate work, was that I am happiest when I am working as a lawyer.

“I’m better when I’m working alone rather than in a partnership and I’ve had a bloody good time over my professional career. Sole practice is becoming increasingly difficult because of compliance…I dropped my trust account, when the money laundering provisions came in.

“The complexity and the need to specialise are the biggest changes in law I have seen in nearly 50 years. More responsibilities fall on practitioners, many of whom are getting toward the end of their practising careers and don’t want the additional responsibility that goes with private client work.

“There’s stress that didn’t exist before or was manageable before. In the advertising industry, for example, there weren’t contracts, the deal was done on trust, on a handshake.

“People stood up and if there were problems people fixed them without costing a lot of money. The word was your bond. It’s now become contractual, with letters of engagement. It’s taken some of the magic away.”

Jock Anderson is a Timaru-based journalist

John and his son George, before a dinner at Girdlers’ Hall in London which confirmed John's appointment as an Honorary Freeman.

At The History of Old St. Pauls book launch, John Swan greets Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson

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