You might think that Sandy Van Den Heuvel, a director at BlackmanSpargo – recent winner in the Rural Law category at the 14th Annual New Zealand Law Awards – would have had her eyes set on such heights from an early age. But in fact, she wasn’t one of those people set on doing the law – and didn’t receive her formal legal qualifications till well after she left school.
After she left school she started out as an office junior working with BlackmanSpargo co-founder Ian Blackman. As Blackman was himself a specialist in succession planning, it was only natural that he should have an eye on the next generation to take over and run the business. It was his idea to have Van Den Heuvel, along with (now) Director Rachel Petterson, go to law school on the side so they could succeed him at the top of the firm.
Van Den Heuvel wasn’t sure being a lawyer was what she wanted to do, but with her oldest child in high school and considering his own future, “I thought if I did this for him, that would be a really good example for my children – that you can do anything that you want to do if you work hard on it.”
She admits it was hard work, but it’s hard to argue with the results, as she and Petterson now head a firm that’s won its fourth consecutive (and sixth overall) New Zealand Law Award. Unsurprisingly, the hard work hasn’t let up (she’s now a co-owner of the business), but it’s a career for which she has genuine passion and enthusiasm.
So how has BlackmanSpargo done it? What sets them apart?
“I think specialisation is probably the number-one key,” Van Den Heuvel said. “So, we’re probably the only legal firm in New Zealand that is dedicated to sale or primarily exposed to the rural sector, and we do align ourselves very closely with farming, with farmers. So understanding that the business is really important to us, so we continually upscale in that area and value the relationships that we have with our clients. So we see ourselves probably closer to farmers than to lawyers, really.”
Van Den Heuvel married into a farming family, and has the enthusiasm for the rural sector of a convert. She also understands that the legal issues involved in their line of work – most prominently among them succession planning – are often emotionally fraught and difficult for farming families that have been in the business for generations.
“What are they going to do as you see somebody’s interested in taking over the family farm? And it’s quite an emotional issue for a lot of farmers,” she said. “They might be a multigenerational farm. So, how do they put in place a plan to achieve what they want to achieve that works?”
Having a notion of the human side – and the precise details involved in the complex area of farming – helps BlackmanSpargo to navigate these tricky waters with skill, and to arrive at legal solutions that provide the best possible result.
We asked Van Den Heuvel what she thought was in store for the future in BlackmanSpargo’s area of law.
She points to the transitions inevitably involved with technology, as well as the new regulatory context – particularly involving environmental regulations – as posing challenges for lawyers and farmers alike. One special concern of hers is to maintain the “face-to-face contact that we regularly treasure with our clients,” because she believes it’s one of the most important ways by which BlackmanSpargo adds unique value.
And what advice would she give younger lawyers?
“I think primarily, it would be they should find their passion,” she said. “So, if the person can find their passion in their work in life and follow that passion, I bet they’ll have a wonderful life. I bet that it is the key. Finding something that they’re strongly interested in.”
But passion isn’t the only thing that brought Van Den Heuvel to where she is today. “Working hard” is her life motto, and she stresses the importance of continuing to learn, and understanding that “you’ll never have all the answers.”
“ … There are always issues that are coming that we haven’t encountered before that we keep up-skilling on,” she said. “…We go regularly to see what’s happening in the industry and make sure that we are on top of what’s happening.”
We asked her how technology has affected her work. Has it been a blessing? Or a mixed blessing?
She admits that increasing technology engagement – particularly smartphones – can make it harder to escape work and maintain that work-life balance. Still, she says she couldn’t be without her phone, and also points to a new document-centralising software system the firm recently implemented as being a boon to her work.
Outside of work, Van Den Heuvel is active with family and community. She is president of a pony club, and her daughter is an enthusiastic horse rider. She also has a “huge cabin” that the family is working on – “although that’s not my passion.” We’re surprised she has time for such other projects, what with all the legal success the firm has obviously been enjoying. “It has kept me very busy,” she said.
Sandy Van Den Heuvel