City law firm to mark proud centenary

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A law firm with a richly diverse history, McCaw Lewis will mark an impressive 100 years in Hamilton next year with a shift to new premises and the launch of a book telling its history.

That story includes a remarkable diversity of staff that continues to the present day, and also its strong support of the Waikato University law school – Te Piringa. 

Many lawyers pass through a legal firm in the course of 100 years. In McCaw Lewis’s case Wally King started it all as a young man in 1919 back from the trenches of World War I. He was soon joined by Ronald “Punch” McCaw, so named because his sister was called Judy.

There were several other partners through to the 1940s when property and commercial lawyer C D Arcus joined. In the 1940s and 50s there was also, unusually for the time, a woman lawyer in the firm called Kath Coup.

The firm evolved through name changes to become McCaw Smith and Arcus when it was joined by another notable figure, Noel Smith, who had a national profile as a personal injury litigator in the days long before ACC. Peter Lewis conducted a nationally recognised tax case before joining the firm.

Sir Ronald Young, who was a partner until the late 80s, went on to become the longest-serving judge in New Zealand. Later there was Julie Hardaker, who became Hamilton mayor. In a firm with a significant history of women lawyers, there were also Sandy Sandford and Rosemary Picton, both partners in the late 80s, and Melanie Harland, now an Environment Court Judge.

So, yes, many lawyers, including those referred to in the sidebar. And one goat. The goat, a baby one, has no name but its story can be added to the annals.

About five years ago, McCaw Lewis chair Brendan Cullen, who has been with the company 34 years, was conducting a mediation with a twist that can only come from rural New Zealand. It involved farmers, and one of the parties brought their baby goat with them. It wasn’t a stunt; the kid was still on a bottle while being weaned and there was no one back on the farm, 40 minutes away, who could take care of it.

Mediation lasted a day, with the kid doted over in reception. Naturally, it drew a crowd. “I imagine productivity went down,” Cullen remarked.

“I’ve talked to some of my mediator colleagues in Auckland and Wellington through the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute about this and to my knowledge we are the only firm that has conducted a mediation and also been responsible for the care of a baby goat.” 

Only in Waikato.

In another action also only of this region, McCaw Lewis Chapman, as the firm was then named, was a supporter of the Waikato University law school when it was founded in the early 1990s. Not all were; the school was set up to be different from the establishment in the likes of Auckland and Victoria, and had a focus on law and context, including biculturalism. That was challenging for some, used to traditional ways.

McCaw Lewis has maintained close ties with the school, teaching there and sponsoring competitions, and many of its staff are graduates of the university, including five of the seven current directors. Like the law school, the practice also has a commitment to a bicultural approach which sees it encouraging staff to learn te reo through classes it offers as well as normalising practices such as karakia before eating.

There is a practical element to this; a significant part of the practice is concerned with iwi and hapū work, including Tiriti settlements.

One of those was particularly memorable for managing director Aidan Warren – his first major Waitangi Tribunal project, in Wairarapa, for Rangitane. He was involved from 2002 through the whole process, from the crafting of the statements of claim to its prosecution, gaining a favourable decision, and the negotiation and settlement.

“Hearing all the strugglesabout people losing their land and culture, is a real journey, and seeing an iwi that goes now into the post-settlement phase 16 years later  is powerful,” he said. “And the connections that you make, the knowledge of that part of the world, intimate knowledge of the Māori history, the colonial history, is just second to none in terms of experience.”

Aidan Warren

Warren, who joined McCaw Lewis fresh out of Waikato University’s law school in 2000, also worked on the legal case for including the “h” in Whanganui. He helped marshal the evidence for the submission to the Geographic Board, in what was a widely publicised and heavily politicised case, with Whanganui Mayor Michael Laws leading the charge against change.

Warren was there at the Whanganui River when the Minister, Maurice Williamson, announced the change. He has been back since, as recently as a few months ago taking his children to a tennis tournament, when he could tell them the story behind the proliferation of the letter “h” on signs around the city. 

The iwi and settlement work mesh well with the firm’s emphasis on property and commercial law, after it moved away from criminal law since the 1980s.

The 1980s also saw two significant mergers. The first was with Lewis Jecks and Co from Cambridge, and the second, in 1984, was with Chapman Cartwright Gendall and Earle. Those two mergers formed McCaw Lewis Chapman, which remained the name until 2011 when the firm was incorporated and became McCaw Lewis Ltd.

As well as its significant involvement in Māori legal work, the practice today includes work around infrastructure development, asset planning, trusts and estates. Warren said the firm’s approach to civil disputes focuses on alternative resolution. Both he and Cullen are accredited mediators, while Cullen is also an arbitrator.

And the firm’s community involvement goes beyond the university to include sponsorship of Northern Districts cricket and support for Pacific businesses and organisations. It hosts Pink Ribbon breakfasts and was involved in establishing the Angel Casts Charitable Trust.

• McCaw Lewis’s centenary will coincide with a move from 1 London Street to the top two floors of a newly refurbished building at 586 Victoria Street, and will be marked by the launch around April of a book by journalist Kingsley Field.

A fine tradition

The Arcus family has a proud association with the McCaw Lewis firm, with C D Arcus, who joined in the 1940s, followed by his son Doug in the mid 1960s. 

Others have similarly long spans. There was Don Shirley, known as “the Don”, whose career with the firm spanned 45 years, and Steve Brooker who was there for 50 years.

Among the more high-profile members of the firm over the years, Bill Dillon, who would become a two-term Labour MP in the 1980s for Hamilton East, was involved in two Privy Council cases.

David Gendall, a commercial law partner was subsequently appointed as the Dean of the Waikato University Law School and is now a High Court Judge. 

On the sporting front David Gendall played National League soccer for Hamilton AFC in the 1970s. 

David Wilson QC was appointed as a District Court Judge in the 1980s and Jeremy Doogue was also appointed as a District Court Judge and later as an Associate Judge of the High Court. 

Continuing a fine tradition, Stephen Clark and Craig Coxhead were appointed as Judges of the Māori Land Court in 2008.

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