Unique point of difference creates “sweet spot” to snap up young talent

by Sophie Schroder27 Aug 2014
Last week NZ Lawyer reported that a Kiwi law firm, that has until now flown relatively under the radar, has appointed 11 new lawyers and is expecting a solid 16% growth in the next 12 months.

Steve Haszard, the managing partner of firm Meredith Connell, puts part of its significant recent growth down to the firm’s unique selling point...one that has been attracting many talented young lawyers.

As both a full service commercial law firm and Auckland’s Office of the Crown Solicitor, Meredith Connell is able to offer its clients and prospective lawyers both experience in court room criminal litigation and an impressive commercial record that’s seen the firm advise on some of the country’s larger cases.

Currently, the Crown Solicitor work, or warrant, accounts for about 30% of the business, with the commercial or “contestable” work making up the majority balance.

“For a lot of aspiring litigants one of the problems they have is getting experience on their feet in a court, so we’re lucky in a way being the Crown Solicitor allows us to offer this and get good people to develop these skills that other firms would struggle to match,” Haszard says. “It’s really working for us and it does make them better lawyers…clients also like that the lawyers representing them in a civil case have actual courtroom experience.”

But another large part of the firm’s growth has been generational, he says, and the eight new partners that have recently been appointed represent a change in the leadership of the firm.

“The average age of the partners that were promoted this year was 36, and that’s very much how we see ourselves. We’re a young, energetic team that is highly collegial and collaborative, and very invested in the future of the place,” says Haszard.

He admits that despite the size of the firm (one of the country’s largest) and the significant transactions it's involved in, until now its quiet culture has seen it fly very much under the radar. But with the shift in lawyer age, growth and focus, that’s all changing.

As the managing partner, Haszard says the growth is great but the biggest challenge is in providing the infrastructure to back it up, and just last month, Meredith Connell opened an office in Wellington.

Having joined the firm in 1998, he says he’s been through all sides of the business and had a front row seat in the journey that began as a business that was entirely Crown Solicitor, to the full service commercial firm it is today.

“In 2000, we decided that the practice would be diversified, and I got on board at the beginning of that process. The real momentum has been in the last six to seven years,” he says. “To begin with we leveraged off top level advocacy and litigation trial work, and then it started to branch out, and suddenly got to the point where we were an all service law firm.”

And the commercial work has since proven to be the all vital ingredient in not only the balance of the firm as a whole, but also in the viability of the warrant work.

Haszard says that when the GFC hit and the government tightened the belt on legal services, legal aid was one area that took a significant cut.

It now makes for a very challenging financial environment, he says, but it is one that is thankfully able to continue by offsetting costs using the success of the contestable side of Meredith Connell.

“For us, the Crown Solicitor side of the business is baked into our DNA, and it’s an important component of who we are. We’ve made the decision that we’re absolutely committed to sustaining these services.”

In many respects, and indeed as the Attorney General once noted, the structure of Meredith Connell could almost be compared to a PPP, says Haszard.

Its unique structure provides an ideal offering for young talented lawyers, and the firm is actively looking around the marketplace to enhance its growth by “aggressively” recruiting “exceptional” lawyers, he says.

The firm hasn’t yet encountered any problem getting the lawyers it wants - either from within NZ or abroad - and as Haszard notes: “The blending of different work types and skills of our lawyers seems to be our sweet spot.”

A construction expert from Dubai and a finance expert from the Cayman Islands are the latest to be “head hunted”, he says, adding that the other area the firm is looking to push heavily into is insurance, and a litigation specialist out of Singapore has also just been recruited.

“It’s time for us to pause and look at how we’re positioned in the market and how it sees us. We really want people to understand that we’re now a full service firm and have some really big clients…I guess we’ve been a bit too bashful in the past.”

Selection of recent Meredith Connell cases/deals:
               
Litigation
  • The Ministry of Education's claim against James Hardie, Carter Holt Harvey and CSR Building Products Limited alleging defects in the monolithic cladding used in schools, the largest and most complex civil case ever in New Zealand.
  • Acting for Mighty River Power in litigation over water allocation in the Waikato River. 
  • Acting for the FMA in civil proceedings that pursued compensation on behalf of investors in the Hanover Finance case.
Insolvency 
  • Paugra Holdings Ltd (in liq) v Harvestfield Holdings Ltd [2014] NZCA 164, (2014) 26 NZTC 21-070: Acted for liquidators of Paugra in successfully overturning a decision of the High Court to not sustain a caveat. 
  • Jeffreys v Morgenstern [2014] NZHC 308: Successfully obtained a $3.5million judgment against a director for breach of directors' duties (involving, amongst other breaches, not acting in the best interests of the company: s131 of the Companies Act).
 Property
  • Advising the Ministry of Education on the rebuild of Christchurch schools, including negotiating and drafting acquisition and development agreements and advising on associated Public Works Act issues.
Finance
  • Advising a PE fund on its NZ operations and acting as lead counsel in USA and the UK, including capital raising, debt financing, group restructuring and contractual arrangements for leisure and travel operations and resort management.
Construction
  • Advising the Ministry on its $1.5bn buildings improvements programme for schools
  • Advising a local authorities on wastewater plant development and a marina development
  • Advising on a number of major port dredging contracts in NZ and Australia

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