Hot List lawyer: How a mid-life crisis led him to buy a Fender Stratocaster

by Sophie Schroder30 Jul 2014
Chapman Tripp partner Geof Shirtcliffe made NZ Lawyer’s Hot List as a result of his role in an impressive series of landmark deals including one of New Zealand’s largest listings.
In one of the major transactions to come out of Wellington last year, Shirtcliffe acted for Infratil, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and Z Energy on the latter’s $840 million listing on the NZX and the ASX.

At the time, the Z Energy IPO was New Zealand’s largest listing since Mighty River’s raising in May 2013.
Shirtcliffe is a self-confessed “novelty junky”. He told NZ Lawyer that he loves jobs that haven’t been done before, and says the Z IPO, as a big, high profile transaction with a cast of thousands, a variety of challenging issues, a tight timeline, and a great result certainly ticked that box.
Other career highlights include acting for the Crown on the retail deposit guarantee scheme in the midst of the GFC, transitioning ANZO (as it was then) from a listed trust to a listed company, executing several transactions with novel acquisition structures, establishing iPredict, and working with the late, “great” Paul Callaghan to establish the MacDiarmid Institute.
“Each of which scratched my novelty itch and proved very rewarding,” Shirtcliffe says.
Wellington born and bred, the lawyer explains that his path into law was rather circuitous to say the least. He completed half a law degree in the early 80s before dropping it in favour of an honours degree in theoretical linguistics.
Following that he worked in the foreign exchange and capital markets, “because before the ’87 crash it seemed like the thing everybody did”, before doing an MA in the philosophy and psychology of language in London.
“After which I came home and completed my law degree. I had intended to go then back into finance, but enjoyed mooting so decided to give litigation a crack,” he says. “Thankfully for Chapman Tripp’s litigation reputation, I first had to rotate through a corporate team, loved it, and have been a corporate lawyer for over 20 years now.”
Shirtcliffe puts his success in the field down to a great firm, good clients and luck.
Of course, he’s certainly a part of that equation and says he’s got an enquiring mind and an enthusiasm for "nailing" the things which engage it.
Shirtcliffe is a glass half full kind of guy, and says both he and Chapman Tripp are focused on the importance of always trying to peer over the horizon to ensure they adapt to changes in the market.
“One issue has been with us for as long as I have been in partnership: how to prosper, and hopefully grow, in a market which is not really growing very much, and the challenges which come with that - in particular, ensuring you can continue to offer talent a path through to partnership,” he says.
A related issue and one which has received more focus in recent years is the disproportionate representation of “white men, like, er, me” in the partnership ranks, says Shirtcliffe, noting that at best it's a work in progress for the whole legal services industry.
Looking longer term, and there are a whole series of other potentially big challenges in the legal space he says.
These include the threat of an influx of UK and US firms, the question of whether or not the UK’s experiments with alternative business structures will lead to NZ opening the doors once again to multi-disciplinary practices, and whether “Big Law” globally has had its day.
“Rumours of its death have been exaggerated, but that is not the same thing as invincibility,” he says. “[But] for all that the profession is often rightly castigated as inherently reactionary; it is also a profession of bright, motivated people.  And bright, motivated people tend to be pretty good at adapting.”
And when he’s not scratching his novelty itch and working on major deals or theorising about the demise of traditional law structures, Shirtcliffe loves nothing more than spending time with his family.
“Music is also a very big part of my life.  I listen to a lot of music, from country to classical, via blues and jazz.  I also play guitar, piano and the djembe drum.  After forty years playing acoustic guitar, my (pretty tame) midlife crisis was to buy a Fender Stratocaster and take up electric guitar lessons,” he says.  “I am not sure the blues will provide a realistic career alternative to law any time soon, but in thirty years’ time I’ll be rocking the retirement village.”