The old trope "male, pale, and stale" extends beyond lawyers to law firms insofar as they're arguably "staler" than most businesses. At least 50 New Zealand firms have been in existence for over 125 years.
First up is Wellington's Treadwells, which has been going strong for 179 years. It's so strong in fact, that the firm declined to comment. The firm can be traced back to the first lawyer to arrive in New Zealand, Richard Davis Hanson.
The first iteration of Bell Gully also came to fruition the same year as the Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, with one of its first clients being none other than the Herald. Its founder, Francis Bell, was mayor of Wellington and was the first New Zealand-born prime minister, albeit he reigned for just 16 days. Bell is one of two prime ministers to go to the firm.
Brandons of Wellington has been in operation for 178 years. The Brandons are somewhat of legal dynasty, thus it's of little surprise Richard Terrence Charles Brandon — a descendant of founder Alfred de Bathe Brandon — is a partner.
Jackson Russell is celebrating 175 years this year. I'm thrilled about this, seeing as I got an invitation. The firm has represented none other than Sir Edmund Hilary, and the Dilworth Trust for 125 years.
Duncan Cotterill's founder Thomas Smith Duncan "left the comparative safety of the Scottish Bar in 1850 ... This was likely motivated by an elopement with his wife, Eliza," partner Struan McOmish said. He set up camp with Henry Cotterill in 1879 — who remained a partner at the firm for a staggering 64 years. The firm has produced JS Williams, JC Martin, TS Stringer, and most recently Justice Rob Osborne, and notable clients include David Bain, Ballantynes and Christ College. Despite a partner dying at his desk while eating a sandwich while a client waited in reception in 1990, and the firm was being "evicted unceremoniously from its first Auckland office as its landlord collapsed in the 1987 stock market crisis", Duncan Cotterill attributes its longevity to the dedication of its early partners and their expertise, McOmish said.
Wynn Williams was founded in 1859 by Harry Bell Johnstone. Justice Andrew Tipping, Justice Geoffrey John Venning, the Hon Justice Gerald Nation, Peter Whiteside QC, and Professor Stephen Todd — of Todd on Torts fame — all hailed from the Christchurch establishment. It's not always been butterflies and rainbows, where the Canterbury earthquakes caused significant upheaval and staff were forced to work out of partners' homes and makeshift offices, a spokesperson said.
Izard Weston partner Bevan Marten said the firm has lasted as long as it has (158 years) because it has resisted the passing fads of our managerial age, and "holds to traditional professional values". He cited senior partner John Burton who said "in business, as in life, you are known by the company you keep".
On the matter of their thriving maritime practice, Marten pointed to a favourite firm tale from the middle of the last century. A law clerk went to arrest an American ship in Wellington Harbour. The master showed the clerk into his cabin, produced a pistol from a drawer and placed it on a desk while staring "daggers at the trembling clerk". "The clerk's horror increased when he realised that the ship had begun to move away from the wharf. In fact it was only shifting berths, and the American master had a big laugh at the poor clerk's expense."
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So why, unlike businesses in a general sense, have firms survived scandals, and the GFC, for example? AUT senior lecturer Helen Dervan says law firms are special insofar as they can provide expertise and generate fees during both upswings and downswings in the economy. Banking and finance (non-contentious work) might take a hit during harder times, but fraud cases, and insolvency work might skyrocket (contentious work).
Couple this with the fact that as a society we are more regulated than we ever have been, it means legal expertise and strategic thinking is a necessary part of running a business.
Otago University Legal Issues Centre director Bridgette Toy-Cronin says she remembers firms either downsized or froze positions after the GFC. Having a diverse practice helps firms to survive in a downturn, so it makes sense that lawyers are encouraged to expand.
And then there's the fact that they're offering a service to consumers who can't really know what they're buying. Credence goods, as they're called, are interesting as consumers "don't know whether they're getting the best bang for their buck, even after the fact ... or even [know] whether to buy the service in the first place".
This results in people looking to other signals to determine quality. "Big firms offer the size, the brand, and they're shiny, so they are trusted." Because legal services often involve high stakes, people will opt for the best, or perceived best in the market.
Dervan says firms do fail, and when they do, they can do so quickly. Because the partners effectively own the firm, they are acutely sensitive to falls in profits and financial losses. "If their incomes drop, they may decide to jump ship, others may follow, causing a spiral of withdrawals'."
Otherwise, firms can fail as a result of power struggles within the partnership, Dervan says. "You can imagine the scenario, senior rainmakers may fall out, and take their whole team to another firm."
The elephant in the room is that if you're not lucky enough to be under a leaving partner who decides to bring his [sic] whole team, you might be out of work altogether. But this is an issue best reserved for another day.
Lynx Africa cops a spray
It appears there's a "tongue in cheek" push to include Lynx Africa in the Crimes Act. Reporter Thomas Coughlan said while it could be an issue under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, the harm caused [by the act of wearing it] was such that it deserved wider attention.
Justice Minister Andrew Little is on the case. He said the Government was considering a schedule of banned substances of this nature. First on the list is likely to be to Old Spice, which is problematic, because David Seymour allegedly wears it.
After a deep dive, it appears importing Spanish Lynx is prohibited under the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989. But sadly, we're talking literal animals, not figurative ones.
Raising the bar
Is the opinion of Sasha Borissenko, former editor of New Zealand Lawyer and one of the journalists who broke the story of inappropriate sexual conduct at Russell McVeagh.
If you've got any tips, legal tidbits, or appointments that might be of interest, please email sasha.borissenko@ gmail.com.