The Challenges & Changing Face Of New Zealand Law Firms

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Putting the 2022 LawFuel Power List together revealed some of the challenges and developments occurring with New Zealand law firms, apart from the impressive array of legal candidates who stand ready to occupy the Power List ranks.

A range of firms in the mid sector, as well as the boutiques, continue to perform high level work as they muscle their way into the earnings more typical of Big Law firms, which continue to remain busy and profitable, although the next year promises some tough challenges.

Among the most profitable of the Big Law firms, Russell McVeagh comes out on top from our anecdotal evidence, followed by MinterEllisonRuddWatts, although both Chapman Tripp and Bell Gully are close in earnings to the others.

The mid-level, larger firms are also performing well and growing. These include firms like Anderson Lloyd, Duncan Cotterill, Meredith Connell, Anthony Harper, Luke Cunningham and others that have all ridden a wave through and beyond Covid.

One of the major issues facing all firms is the Covid-delayed OE for younger lawyers moving overseas. The talent shortage is something we have written about previously and continues as a major bugbear for firms seeking to handle and build on their exiting capabilities.

Apart from young talent leaving for other jurisdictions temporarily there is also an issue with those who leave permanently, mainly to Australia and the UK, which heightens the problems the major and mid-level firms have in retaining talent.

The firms are now requiring in-office attendance for at least three days and notwithstanding the vaunted benefits of the home office and remote working, there are clearly only so many Zoom meetings that can effectively move the needle on major projects when non-speaking attendees are playing ‘Truth or Dare’.

Firms recognise the need to build teams, meet deadlines, identify talent and even retain their firm culture by having physical attendances from their professionals, even though a Gen-Z inclination continues to swing towards the all-important ‘work-life’ balance.

But not all young lawyers move away. Those that have already done so (if at all) have returned and are also prospering, helping to usher in a new era of major legal performers.

Generational Change Occurring

The generational change of lawyers who once dominated the major deals is seeing their replacement by a younger group of legal stars who are now shining.

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David Wetherell

LawFuel will introduce some of those performers in an article shortly, but the heavyweight performers in M&A work like Roger Wallis, John Strowger, Pip Greenwood, Cathy Quinn, David Wetherell (right) and others slipping from their higher perches, many of whom have occupied lofty positions previously on the Power List, and making way for younger operators who may not yet be on the List, but who are surely rising.

The next year looks to be slower, but it is unlikely to slow the newer legal stars as they handle both the heavy duty commercial jobs, along with newer, developing areas of law in IP, environment, property, public law and elsewhere.

In-House Movement

The massive growth of in-house counsel has also seen some significant, rising stars occupying major roles in some of the country’s largest organisations.

And the role of in-house counsel continues to provide huge challenges as both the in-house departments grow and as the legal demands and work they have put upon them also continues to grow massively.

Organisations like Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Fonterra have seen major challenges as a result of either major growth, regulatory and trade issues, environmental issues and a raft of other matters that would challenge any lawyer.

Banking for instance has seen major changes as it faces not just public scrutiny at a time of rising mortgage rates and escalating bank profits, but also massive regulatory change.

Whilst no-one expects tears to be shed for the banks, they face change with legislation such as the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act, Conduct of Financial Institutions legislation, the Climate-Related Disclosure regime along with Reserve Bank requirements for capital requirements starting from July 2022.

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The ANZ, for instance, has seen Power List member David Bricklebank performing a major role as General Counsel and at ASB Steven Bendall (pictured) and Kiwibank’s Chief Legal Officer Mike Hendriksen (pictured below), who arrived at the bank via a legal history at Baker + McKenzie, the IRD and Westpac, have all joined the bank’s executive teams, a significant lift in their ‘power’ positions with the banks.

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Power List member and former Chief Counsel at Westpac Mark Weenink was already a board member at the bank. He’s recently taken a role as Legal Counsel with Todd Corporation.

Bar Moves Too

There has also been a continued growth in those lawyers seeking to join the bar, particularly in cases where they see little need to subsidise their firms with the work that comes in the door.

Barristers continue to shine, including not only those on the Power List like Davey Salmon KC, who handles a range of major work but is also making his mark in the environmental space, and long-standing ‘divorce diva’ Lady Deborah Chambers KC who has trail blazed some major trust and relationship property work.

The Power List’s changing nature continues to reflect the equally changing waters that comprise the New Zealand law profession as it enters what is almost certainly another period of challenge – and change.

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