Meredith Connell managing partner Steve Haszard
talks to NZ Lawyer
about the firm’s incredible transformation
The growth of Meredith Connell had gone largely unnoticed by the legal industry, but now the secret is out. When managing partner Steve Haszard joined the firm as a law clerk in 1998, it was very much a firm set up to deal with criminal prosecution work stemming from the Crown Solicitor’s Warrant for Auckland. By the time Haszard made managing partner in May last year, the firm was almost unrecognisable, having added Crown entities and commercial clients to its traditionally central government client base, and introduced new practice areas such as employment, corporate, and resource management.
Although the dependable flow of Crown Warrant work has dominated much of the firm’s 92-year history, in 2000 the firm decided to branch out.
“The then partners decided that it would be a good idea to diversify their legal offering, so they started pushing out into other areas,” Haszard says. “Initially it was other areas of litigation, primarily on behalf of government or government-related organisations, but since then it’s diversified into a full-spectrum commercial law firm.”
According to Haszard, the decision was a pragmatic one. “Having all your eggs in one legal basket, so to speak, probably didn’t make a lot of business sense,” he says.
Although a solicitor at the firm has held the Auckland Crown Warrant since Meredith Connell’s inception (“you get to the age and stage where you’re so big and so efficient at dealing with [Warrant work] that it actually makes it difficult for possible alternative providers to really get a look in,” Haszard says), the decision to diversify was taken partly to insulate the firm in the event that central government decided to make changes to the Warrant system.
The firm’s expansion began modestly, initially by leveraging off existing clients and litigation talent to expand into new areas. Two partners moved away from Warrant-related matters and started conducting litigation work on behalf of other government entities. By the time Haszard made partner in 2004, momentum had started to build and other young lawyers were also moving into new practice areas.
In the last 10 years, the firm has doubled in size and contestable revenues have increased by approximately 330%. These days, work from the Warrant accounts for just 30% of the firm’s revenue – a far cry from the firm Haszard joined in 1998.
Meredith Connell, Then and Now (Click to enlarge)
After the firm’s initial foray into other litigation work, it became obvious that a commercial arm was also needed, followed by a resource management practice, a construction team, and finance capabilities. The firm is currently pushing into infrastructure and projects and is also setting up an insurance advisory practice.
According to Haszard, these changes have been incremental, and the addition of new practice groups was the result of recognising existing clients’ need for service in other areas. “Especially for big clients, having one provider who understands the whole of the business and what the business is trying to achieve is obviously a real driver for clients, and it’s a real value-add,” he says.
In order to keep up with growing client demand, additional talent was required. Here, too, an organic growth strategy has been the approach of choice.
“We’ve managed to achieve that growth just through bringing exceptional young lawyers in and providing them with opportunities and allowing them to grow the practice from within, and I think if you do it that way then you do have a much better chance of retaining your unique culture,” Haszard says.
In August the firm named eight new partners, all of them internal promotions.
“One of the things we’re seeing with mergers and acquisitions of other law firms [is that] there is a clash of cultures sometimes and some culture has to be subsumed by the other, and that can be difficult. But we haven’t faced that because it’s been organic growth.”
UNDER THE RADAR
One of the most interesting things about Meredith Connell’s growth is that the firm's expansion has gone largely unnoticed.
“I think because people wrongly had us pigeonholed as just the Crown Solicitor’s firm for Auckland, which in fairness we were for a while, as we were picking up and branching out to more government work and Crown entity work, we were able to keep below the radar,” Haszard says.
But now that the firm has moved more into the commercial sphere and is taking on non-government clients, it is increasingly finding itself in direct competition with commercial firms, and becoming much harder to ignore.
“We are very quickly approaching the size and scale of some of the existing big commercial firms in New Zealand,” Haszard says. “We have a slightly different product offering in the sense that we don’t necessarily take on the pure commercial cases that they do at the moment, but we certainly are an alternative provider to them for some of that work, and I think we’re starting to get noticed now.”
SETTING UP SHOP IN WELLINGTON
The firm recently opened its new Wellington office to better serve its central government and Crown entity clients.
“Notwithstanding that on any given day there would be four or five of our partners in Wellington anyway, we really needed to commit to it on a permanent basis,” Haszard says.
“We also recognised that there is some real potential for us to grow further in Wellington, and in order to do that you actually have to … show commitment to the local market.”
Given its continued expansion, does Meredith Connell have plans to open additional offices?
“We wouldn’t rule it out if our organic growth plan led us into that, but at this stage between Auckland and Wellington we think we’re picking up most of the needs that our clients have,” says Haszard. “You never say never, but at this stage we’ll pause and take a breath and consolidate Wellington.”
THE NEXT STEP
For Haszard, playing a role in the firm’s growth has been one of the highlights of his career.
“It’s been really exciting to be involved in the start of this build … and be involved with sensational lawyers who had the vision to go out and start building a practice,” he says.
“One of the exciting things is we don’t necessarily know where this is going to end. We certainly have practice areas that we’re pushing hard into at the moment in a very concerted way, and if they come off I’ve got no doubt that there will be a continued growth spurt. We always think that at some stage the growth will probably need to tail off, but there’s just no sign of it at this stage.”
This article appeared in New Zealand Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 6.3. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.
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