New Zealand Law Society - Focus on Levin: Very few places have the same opportunities

Focus on Levin: Very few places have the same opportunities

Levin is growing, and that growth looks likely to continue, if not accelerate. LawTalk takes a look at why that is, and what it’s like lawyering in Levin.

Levin clocktower
Levin clocktower

“Levin seems to be growing at a rate of knots,” says Cooper Campbell Law principal Kelvin Campbell.

“People are moving north.” As a result, he says, his firm is now involved in a lot of conveyancing.

With the town’s growth has come more work. In fact, Mr Campbell says, “I am turning work away because I am so busy. I can’t do it all.”

Levin is forecast to grow at something like 5% a year for the next 10 years, says Cullinane Steele director Hannah Wood.

The number of new clients that are coming to the area “is testament to that,” she says.

“And the [Horowhenua District] Council is also looking to open up more properties.”

The council is, in fact, looking to make a huge tract of land available for subdivision, says Doug Rowan, who is also a Cullinane Steele director.

Named Gladstone Green, it will be one of the largest subdivisions Levin has seen for decades and will be just off State Highway 57, which links the town with Palmerston North.

Long-term planning by the council includes re-zoning the land residential, Mr Rowan says.

The council’s Gladstone Green master plan is to re-zone 400 hectares of land so it can be redeveloped into a community of some 2,500 homes.

Levin’s new Speldhurst Country Estate is already well under way. This $150 million development will include 400 new standalone homes and a community centre.

Aimed at seniors, Speldhurst already has a large number of completed homes. It, too, is situated off State Highway 57, on the site occupied by the former Kimberley Centre, a once a thriving community for the intellectually disabled.

Not including any of the other subdivisions that are happening, these two alone will significantly boost the population of Levin, which was 17,700 on 30 June 2019 according to Statistics New Zealand.

As well as the Gladstone Green development, the Horowhenua District Council is also looking to redevelop the town centre, Mr Rowan says, “which is great”.

“We are seeing new businesses coming here as well.”

Plenty of opportunities

Although, traditionally, Levin had above the New Zealand average of retired people, that is already looking like changing.

Daniel O'Neill

“It’s increasingly becoming a destination for younger people,” says Daniel O’Neill, a partner with local firm Todd Whitehouse.

After graduating in 2007, Mr O’Neill found himself urgently needing a job and a place to live.

A job came up in Levin, and he took it. In fact, Mr O’Neill was admitted one day and started work the next. And he has stayed in the town ever since.

“I went against all the advice and I stayed in one place.

“There are definitely benefits of staying in one place. I have a large intergenerational client base. I’ve also got a significant connection with the place and its people”.

Mr O’Neill has found the work for Levin people “varied, interesting and extremely rewarding. “I have always been impressed by the ability of professionals, and other people in community support roles, to try new things and punch above their weight. In many ways, that Kiwi sensibility is very present here,” he says.

“In a small place, we have got to provide a very wide range of services. We have got to service the community here.

“My main focus now is family law and lawyer for the child work, but I still maintain a civil, criminal and conveyancing practice.

“Very few places have the same opportunities in terms of wide-ranging work, especially with criminal and family law. And very few practices would allow you to practise in so many areas.

“A sense of community is also essential, and the more you put into the community, the more you get out in a real way.

“A lot of lawyers travel from Wellington or up the coast to practise here. They inevitably find themselves enjoying their kind of law, collegiality and opportunities”.

Levin, Mr O’Neill says, “is a great place to be active in, raise a family in, and cover off the basics, like simply owning a home.

“While the work is intense, you can have your family life at a slower place, and that’s a major advantage.

“Levin is within good geographical proximity to Wellington, the Central North Island, skiing, Palmerston North and the Hawkes Bay.

“It’s got great beaches, bush walks, bike trails, and a lot of other well-hidden secrets.”

On any given Saturday afternoon, Daniel can be found either playing football for Manakau United, mountain biking or skiing (if there’s snow!).

He lives on a small lifestyle property with his wife, Tara Jackson, their two teenage daughters Caitlyn and Hannah, and black snoodle Peggy.

Range of aspects of practice

Originally from Wellington, Hannah Wood did not follow the trend of many of the young lawyers who were admitted around the same time.

Hannah Wood and Doug Rowan
Hannah Wood and Doug Rowan

While they tended to go to work for firms in Wellington, she chose to work in Levin.

And she is glad that she did. “The opportunities you get in a provincial town are much greater,” she says.

That’s where you get to learn a range of aspects of legal practice. “That’s how I got my masters in trusts, and that’s how I got to become the director of a law firm at a young age.”

Having young lawyers “helps make a firm more nimble for the changing face of practice,” she adds.

Choosing Levin has also been great in terms of lifestyle. In contrast with the big city choices of living in suburbia or in the city centre, in Levin you can, for example, choose a lifestyle property or a beach property – “whatever you want, which is great”.

“That’s the beauty of Levin. There is huge diversification.”

As a firm, Cullinane Steele is growing “and we would love to see more talent coming out to Levin,” she says.

“We are looking for another two lawyers in commercial, property and trusts,” Doug Rowan adds.

“We don’t believe in thrashing people,” he adds, noting that the firm closes the office at 5pm, and that is generally when the lawyers finish for the day.

“In terms of practising here, young lawyers have a good opportunity to have client contact and build client relationships, rather than just being told what to do.

“We are in a good position in terms of having a mixture of youth and age in the leadership. It’s great. It’s good for young lawyers and good for clients.”

Cullinane Steele also has an emphasis on the need for law firms to keep up to date with the changing face of practice.

“We need to adapt in terms of accessibility and technology, and clients’ needs are changing as well.

I’m not a big fan of being ultra specialised. I’ve done that for years... Having my hand in lots of areas is enjoyable. I enjoy the variety

“You have to be adaptable to meet clients’ needs going forward. You have to be able to change and that’s why we are looking to attract young lawyers as well,” Mr Rowan says.

Originally from Whanganui, where his parents were farmers, Mr Rowan got his first job at Cullinane Steele Lawyers, or CS Law, a firm that has now been practising for 115 years. That was in 1996, and he has been with the firm ever since.

There are a number of reasons for that.

Firstly, he got very good training. Secondly, Levin is a “great place to practise” and has a really good community. And thirdly he has had a “great variety of work, so that’s stimulating”.

In terms of variety of work, it’s perhaps important to mention the legal work for Horowhenua’s farmers.

This is perhaps best summed up by the following wording on CS Law’s website: “Our office is also farmer-friendly, so feel free to just come in straight from the farm, leave your gumboots at the door and step inside so we can get started and get you sorted right away.”

Better climate

In contrast to Ms Wood, Mr Rowan and Mr O’Neill, Kelvin Campbell has only been in Levin for six years.

After a long career as a lawyer in the public sector – 14 years with the Police and a little over two years with the Ministry of Fisheries – Mr Campbell went into private practice, working for a firm in Oamaru.

Kelvin Campbell

He decided he wanted to work for himself and in 2014 he bought the firm now known as Cooper Campbell Law from Ross Kerr and Jeremy Cooper, who were both planning to retire.

He kept Mr Cooper as a consultant to the firm, hence the firm’s name.

“My reason for wanting to come to Levin, as well as wanting my own business, was climactic,” he says. “I must admit I enjoyed moving to a warmer climate.”

Levin is also “conveniently close to Wellington” and will effectively be even closer when new road Transmission Gully is complete.

“I live in the countryside about 7½km from Levin.

“The lifestyle in Levin is good. You can have a little farmlet [like Mr Campbell has] and still get to work without the traffic. And Levin is a great place to work. There are lots of opportunities.”

Mr Campbell’s practice is wide-ranging, from criminal to family law, from conveyancing to estates, wills, trusts and powers of attorney.

“That’s what I like doing,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of being ultra specialised. I’ve done that for years,” he says, quoting his time as a lawyer in the state sector.

“For me, having my hand in lots of areas is enjoyable. I enjoy the variety.”

One of the big factors about lawyering in Levin at present, at least for the lawyers doing court work, is that the Levin Courthouse is currently closed.

The building is undergoing strengthening after it was discovered that the structure could be unsafe in the event of an earthquake.

“It is only a small town but there is quite a lot of court work,” Mr Campbell says.

With the town’s courthouse closed that means a 40-minute drive to Palmerston North for both lawyers and their clients, which is “annoying”.

“To the credit of legal aid, they have agreed to pay travel,” he says.

The long drive “can cause drama”, Mr Campbell notes. For example, going back to the office to pick up a file which you could not have predicted when leaving Levin.

“Also, if you have something in the morning and something in the afternoon, you have to stay there. It’s pretty annoying for the poor old clients,” made worse by the fact that public transport is “abysmal”.

So, for example, if you are a disqualified driver, having to travel to Palmerston North for a court appearance is not ideal.

“Apparently, the court is all set to go in September,” Mr Campbell says.

That will be almost a year after the courthouse closed. If the Levin courthouse does reopen in September “that will be great,” Mr Campbell adds.

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