A quiet coup is afoot among the pinstripes of Auckland's Shortland St, threatening to overthrow almost a century of legal tradition.
Meredith Connell, the law firm whose staff have prosecuted serious criminal trials in the city for 93 years, is being challenged for that work by a string of heavy hitters formerly from its own ranks.
And while it will be tough to oust the firm that has housed Auckland's Crown solicitor since 1922, some well-known names have already lined up in favour of change.
The rival bid, spearheaded by ex-Meredith Connell criminal partners Aaron Perkins, Richard Marchant and associate June Jelas, is said to have the support of Queen's Counsel Christine Gordon, senior barrister Kieran Raftery and Simon Mount.
All had long stints at Meredith Connell and have been involved in some of New Zealand's most high profile cases, including Kim Dotcom's extradition hearings, the Kahui twins' murder prosecution and the David Bain retrial.
Their bid puts either Perkins, Marchant or Jelas forward as Auckland's Crown solicitor - the person who holds the city's warrant and is responsible for overseeing most prosecution work not handled by the police.
The trio are up against their former colleague and acting Crown solicitor, Brian Dickey.
A 20-year stalwart at Meredith Connell, Dickey was mentored by the now-Justice Simon Moore, who in 2002 publicly praised his "rare brilliance" as a prosecutor.
Dickey is Meredith Connell's director of litigation, and his big wins include the jailing of Bridgecorp boss Rod Petricevic and other failed finance company executives.
[Crown warrant work] still drives the culture, values and people of our organisation.
Meredith Connell's long hold on the Crown warrant was challenged after Moore was appointed a High Court judge last year. At that stage the Auckland warrant was reviewed, and because of its size it was divided - one warrant for Auckland, the other for Manukau - and the legal community was invited to bid for them.
Although the firm has the incumbent's advantage, one legal source says Meredith Connell isn't guaranteed to keep the Auckland warrant.
The source sees the rival bid from Perkins, Marchant and Jelas as a "very strong" one, helped by support from the likes of Gordon and Raftery.
Numerous members of that "formidable" team are very well regarded by judges and the police, the source says.
"Over the last 15 or 20 years, a lot of very serious crime [prosecuted] up in the High Court really has been, if not dealt with by them, then certainly overseen by one of them."
A separate Shortland St source also hails the strength of the rival bid and the trial experience of those involved.
"I would have thought the only reason it would remain with Meredith Connell is inertia and the view [that says] 'stick with the status quo because it's the easy option'," the lawyer says.
Meredith Connell's position could be bolstered, then, by the fact that the city's prosecutions are already going through a shakeup.
That's because of Attorney-General Chris Finlayson's decision last year to create two new warrants, giving Manukau its own Crown solicitor for the first time.
The region accounts for about 40 per cent of the Crown prosecution work previously done by Meredith Connell, which decided against bidding for the Manukau contract.
The race to be Crown solicitor for that area is believed to be between renowned child abuse prosecutor Phil Hamlin and Susan Gray on one side, and Natalie Walker of the firm Kayes Walker Fletcher on the other. Both Hamlin and Walker are formerly from Meredith Connell.
Although Hamlin has seniority, Walker's running mate Ned Fletcher has legal pedigree as the son of New Zealand's most senior member of the judiciary, Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.
The Auckland and Manukau contests have about a fortnight left to run, with the Governor General expected to announce the appointments by mid-April.
The bidders themselves are unwilling to say much so close to the decision, but commentators say it would be "huge" for Meredith Connell if it lost the bid for Auckland.
"It's important to their business model and I think that if they weren't successful in their application it would be pretty major," says Tony Bouchier, president of the Criminal Bar Association.
As Dickey sees it, the Crown warrant is a "core part" of Meredith Connell's "DNA".
Prosecutions make up about 30 per cent of the firm's business, augmented by its commercial practice and by income from contestable legal work it does for Crown entities outside the warrant.
Dickey, though, says the warrant work is "the most important".
"It still drives the culture, values and people of our organisation", he says.
"An illustration of this is the warrant attracts really good people who have public interest values and are therefore more inclined and motivated to work with public sector entities rather than against," he says.
One defence lawyer, however, believes Meredith Connell sees the warrant "as nice to have but not essential".
"And that's the message that they've been sending to the market," says the source, who wants to remain anonymous.
The same lawyer says the firm has changed a lot over the past decade, since "bolting on a commercial side" and moving into general litigation.
As the firm expanded into more profitable areas of business, the source says, the equity received by some partners became out of line with the revenue they were bringing in.
"Any law firm throughout history anywhere in the world where equity and revenue become unaligned, will either fracture and break up, or will internally fracture and that's exactly what's happened," he says.
"If you look at the criminal partners they've shed over the past three or four years, that is a consequence of something that dates back a long time."
There is, however, a competing narrative that says those in the rival bid failed to get behind a new vision at Meredith Connell for a modern, diverse and efficient prosecution service.
This is against a backdrop of the firm's non-warrant arm supporting Crown work when funding is tight, while also offering expertise that can help during criminal trials.
I think that if [Meredith Connell] weren't successful in their application it would be pretty major.
Given Auckland's status as New Zealand's economic hub, the biggest prosecutions in the city often involve organised crime and sophisticated offending where commercial or a broad base of experience is invaluable for those taking the case, one source says.
"The next generation had a vision of how it wanted to conduct the warrant and were looking for rejuvenation. The fact people chose to leave isn't a big deal; there are a large number of capable and experienced prosecutors still at the firm," a source told the Herald.
It is believed a handful of those lawyers could leave if the firm loses the Auckland warrant.
"I would imagine a number of prosecutors from Meredith Connell would have to go to that new firm [if it won the warrant]," Bouchier says.
"The new firm would require experienced Crown lawyers and prosecutors."
There is also chatter around Auckland law chambers that some Meredith Connell staff will take up positions under the new Manukau Crown solicitor, regardless of who wins the Auckland race.
Dickey says giving up the prosecution work for Manukau will not necessarily lead to staff cuts.
"The vast majority of our lawyers doing criminal work are also doing other work so it's a question of managing that carefully to transition those people into more non-criminal work and to look at opportunities to do that in the market."
Although losing the bid for the Auckland warrant would be more "significant", Dickey says the firm would still follow this process and "look for opportunities, rather than have a knee-jerk reaction".
If Meredith Connell does lose the Auckland warrant, one source says it will be interesting to watch the way it goes about making the shift to being a commercial firm. Meredith Connell has already made good moves in that environment, the source says, but would be competing against larger firms such as Chapman Tripp, Bell Gully and Russell McVeagh, which have longstanding relationships with big corporates.
However, it is understood the firm would continue to focus on public-interest legal services and contestable Crown entity work, for organisations such as the Financial Markets Authority and the Commerce Commission.
But one of the lawyers who rates the rival bid says there would be nothing to stop that group from trying to pick up that other Crown work, as well as criminal prosecutions - provided they first win the warrant.
"If I were at Meredith Connell I wouldn't be safely assuming that work was going to stay. Meredith Connell [could have] a competitor it doesn't presently have," he says.
Justice pressured by funding model
Crime doesn't pay - at least not the way it used to for New Zealand's prosecutors.
Funding for the country's Crown prosecutions is now fixed at $33.2 million, down from $42 million in 2011-12.
The drop follows a move to bulk funding for prosecutions, from a more expensive model where the 16 Crown solicitors invoiced for hours worked.
Under the new regime, the amount distributed for Crown prosecutions in each area depends on the number and types of cases there, as a proportion of work done nationally.
That work includes running criminal trials in front of juries, prosecuting serious cases before judges alone and acting in appeals.
Auckland, the country's largest city and the place with more crime going through the courts, received $17.5 million for Crown prosecutions in 2011-12.
That was down to $11.5 million during the latest 12-month period and is forecast to be less than $10 million in the present year.
The funding changes were criticised when they came into force, amid fears they could affect the way prosecutions are run. One former prosecutor told the Herald the old model meant a Crown solicitor had an incentive to put senior lawyers on cases, because they could charge a higher rate.
"Of course, with the bulk funding model, it's completely the opposite. All the Crown solicitors are incentivised, not to just employ junior people ... but to get those people to do criminal work," he says.
The lawyer also says the funding model means there is pressure to resolve cases early because a long trial doesn't pay the way it did previously.
Not all Crown work is covered by the bulk funding.
Prosecutions or civil work done for organisations such as the Financial Markets Authority or Commerce Commission are funded by the agencies themselves, over and above the fixed annual amount.
This work, however, is not guaranteed to go to a Crown solicitor, and the likes of the FMA can instruct any provider they choose.
While Government departments generally turn to Crown Law for civil work, that body can in turn instruct a Crown solicitor, with the department to pick up the tab.
What it's worth
Funding for Crown prosecution work in Auckland & Manukau
• 2005-06: $9.2m
• 2006-07: $11.5m
• 2007-08: $12.9m
• 2008-09: $12.9m
• 2009-10: $15.3m
• 2010-11: $17.3m
• 2011-12: $17.5m
• 2012-13: $15.2m
• 2013-14: $11.5m
• 2014-15: Just under $10m (forecast)