Five minutes with...Don Mackinnon, Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon

by Mackenzie McCarty21 Mar 2014
Don Mackinnon is one of the founding partners of boutique employment law firm Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon. He talks to NZ Lawyer about his obsession with pro golf, the impending election and how growing up as one of six siblings impacted his legal career...

NZ Lawyer: Why did you become a lawyer?

Don Mackinnon: I grew up the youngest of six in a home with lots of noise, lots of passionate debate about right and wrong and  lots of fun. Somehow a career that involved talking, debating and standing up for yourself (and your clients) seemed appropriate. 
What made you decide to help form Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon?

I’d spent close to 20 years with big multinational firms, including 10 great years as a partner at Simpson Grierson. However I’m lucky in that the area of law I practice in (employment)  easily lends itself to a boutique practice and I’d always intended at some stage to create something that suited me and the type of work and lifestyle I wanted. I just had to find the courage to make the jump and eventually I found it.  Kathryn Beck and Penny Swarbrick were looking to do something similar so it made sense to join forces and since then, Bridget Smith has also come into the partnership. It’s a great mix of people all passionate about and highly skilled in employment law.
What’s the most interesting/challenging case you’ve ever worked on?

As a young lawyer I juniored Richard Craddock QC,  Alan Galbraith QC and Chris Allan (now a High Court Judge) in litigation that went for years involving Rainbow Corporation, Equiticorp and a certain Mr Meates (of Meates v Attorney General fame). It was complex litigation and a superb learning experience to work with such brilliant advocates. I’ve never worked so hard or learned so much. In more recent years, some of the work I’ve done with Team New Zealand has been incredibly interesting.
Do you have any hobbies/interests outside of work?

Apart from a wonderful family and an obsession with golf (I love it more than it loves me) I spend a lot of my time as a director, primarily in the area of sport. I’m currently on the board of New Zealand Cricket, of Sport NZ and its relatively new off- shoot High Performance Sport, and was previously Chair of Netball NZ and on the panel that reviewed the governance/constitution of rugby league. The roles take up a lot of time but I find it incredibly satisfying .
What’s the strangest job you had before you became a lawyer?

Not sure about the “strangest” but working summer holidays at the old Mt Wellington Trust Hotel in the bottle yard doing “swap a crate” was certainly character building! A good place for a 15 year old pakeha boy to toughen up fast.
Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t a lawyer, I would be…

No idea...but it’s a question I ask myself a lot. Maybe a writer - a very poor man’s version of Roald Dahl would be something special, or perhaps a professional director. A pro golfer would be the best of all...but sadly there is zero chance of that ever happening!
What do you think will be single biggest issue facing the employment legal space in New Zealand in 2014?

Inevitably the election and the plans of the major parties will dominate a lot of employment law thinking. For a decade or two, employment law was becoming a political football with significant u-turns every time there was a change of Government. The changes were less significant when National replaced Labour six years ago but I get the sense both parties are developing quite different policies this time, especially in relation to the role and importance of unions.
If you had John Key’s job for one day, what would you do?

Rewrite the Holidays Act in the morning, golf with Obama in the afternoon, change the flag that evening (the Union Jack has to go!)
What do you love about your job?

I became an employment lawyer primarily because of its “realness”. On any given day, you might be dealing with a client that has a picket outside their business and a union official screaming down the line at you, then be reviewing a highly technical clause in a commercial agreement about the transfer of employees and then find yourself debating the merits of a personal grievance on one file with a QC and on another file with an advocate from 0800SACKED. It’s seldom dull!
What would you change about your job right now if you could?

In truth, nothing at all. I consider myself very lucky, I work with a great team, try hard to maintain a reasonable balance between work and the rest of my life and while there are still plenty of  times when the practice of law gets stressful and frustrating, I genuinely count my blessings most of the time. We work in a great profession and I’m proud to be part of it.