Leading lawyer calls for diversity

21 Jul 22

Only two South Island names feature in New Zealand Lawyer magazine’s list of the country’s most influential lawyers — and both are in Dunedin. Business editor Sally Rae talks to Anderson Lloyd partner Frazer Barton about building a flourishing career in the South.

For Dunedin lawyer and litigation specialist Frazer Barton, living in the city has its advantages.

On numerous occasions, potential court cases have been settled on the street during his lunch break, thanks to the ease of knowing other lawyers in the city.

Staying in the South, where he was educated and admitted to the bar in January 1985, has been no barrier to attracting notable work which has seen him appear at all levels of the law, from District Court to the Privy Council in London.

In fact, he believed the variety of work was much greater than potentially working in a larger centre where it was more likely he would have worked in much narrower area.

The citation in New Zealand Lawyer magazine about Mr Barton — who was named a standout in the change-maker category — is impressive. He was described as an agent of change within the legal sector over many years.

For six years, he was chairman of the Anderson Lloyd partnership where he championed diversity, equity and inclusion. That led to Anderson Lloyd having the highest proportion of women equity partners in a major firm in New Zealand.

He was also highly influential in the firm’s achievement of carbon-zero status and becoming a living wage-accredited employer. Increasing cultural competency had been a focus area for the firm overall and it had established a cultural intelligence programme to enhance the firm-wide understanding of te ao Maori, in conjunction with Ngai Tahu.

Mr Barton, who heads the law firm’s Otago litigation team, has been involved in landmark cases, including a recent Mercury New Zealand Ltd High Court judgement overturning a decision of the Waitangi Tribunal, which granted land in the takiwa (area) of the firm’s iwi client to an iwi with no mana whenua (land rights).

He has also held numerous governance roles including South Island vice-president and member of the New Zealand Law Society board, University of Otago Council and chairman of Presbyterian Support.

He has been on the faculty of NZLS’s litigation skills programme since 1995, teaching courtroom skills to junior practitioners as well as being a mentor.

A typical southerner, both modest and down-to-earth, Mr Barton said being in a law firm in a place like Dunedin came with a responsibility to be closely integrated in the community.

That was something he enjoyed and his ability to do those roles, alongside his legal work, came down to being well organised and being surrounded by a good team — both at work and at home.

Mr Barton’s interest in law came via an uncle who was a Queen’s Counsel, involved in various high-profile cases, and he was brought up hearing stories of his work. Coupled with an interest in history and languages, law seemed a “logical pursuit”.

He completed a first-class honours degree in law from the University of Otago, specialising in public law. Aside from spending two years in Christchurch after graduating, he had remained in Dunedin, although he had also spent time in Anderson Lloyd’s other offices in Queenstown, Christchurch and Auckland. He became a partner in 1988.

One of the attractions of law was its stimulation, and the wide-ranging subjects which was illustrated through some of the significant cases in his career.

He was involved in the aftermath of the 1987 sharemarket crash, doing a huge amount of work for receivers, and he learned much during those times.

In the early 2000s, he acted in the case of a Christchurch events organiser who was prosecuted and convicted following the death of a cyclist during the Le Race cycle event from Christchurch to Akaroa in 2001.

In 2004, the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction of criminal nuisance,Mr Barton recalled.

It was at a time when health and safety issues were starting to ramp up.

Another time he appeared before the Privy Council in London, acting for a scaffolding company over a commercial issue which was a “fascinating” case.

He has also acted in disputes over wills, trusts and estates; many now were within families about farms.

Dealing with those issues came down to relationships and client management and working out how to negotiate with the other side. A large proportion of the work of litigation lawyers was resolved before going to trial.

Sometimes that was on the street corner at lunchtime, or in the airport, and then more formally.

“On the whole, it’s about negotiating settlements that are in most people’s interests,” he said.

It could be stressful, but lawyers learned how to deal with that. The aim was for a resolution so people could get on with their lives.

Mr Barton’s advice to young lawyers was always the same: to survive in legal practice they had to keep fit and healthy, retain a sense of humour — “don’t take yourself too seriously” — and have other interests outside law.

Mr Barton was a firm believer the legal profession needed to reflect society, including socio-economic diversity.

“It’s not a good thing if all lawyers come from well-off, middle-class families.”

He found the Treaty-related work of more recent times particularly interesting. It had helped his understanding of issues to do with tikanga,as well as “some of the wider issues we’re going to have to grapple with”.

And it further impressed on him the need for the legal profession to reflect society, in terms of diversity and make-up. Greater understanding of tikanga was required, and greater questioning about the structure of law firms that was not welcoming.

Treaty cases helped his understanding and made him very supportive of the Treaty process “and trying to right the wrongs of the past”.

His grandchildren included two Maori and a Samoan grandchild and he wanted them to have the same opportunities that he had.

Discussions were being held with Ngai Tahu to try to find a way to recruit more diversity.

Changes were coming — in the economy, the profession and globalisation — and the legal profession had to be responsive to that. Young people graduating from university were concerned about climate change, they wanted sustainability and a firm working on diversity and pay equity. None of these things were sorted quickly but the profession needed to be working on them.

During his stint as chairman of Anderson Lloyd’s partners, which finished last year, a lot of those projects were being driven and his successor was keeping up that momentum.

While chuckling that he was possibly biased, Mr Barton said the University of Otago’s law school was “first rate” and the university itself, where his children were fourth-generation to attend, was the best in the country.

He and his family had been very lucky in terms of the opportunities and education that they had and giving back to the university was something that he enjoyed.

Representing the South Island on the board of the law society took some time and effort, but again he had been fortunate in the opportunities he had in the profession.

And, above all, he liked living in Dunedin.


Article written by ODT Reporter Sally Rae sally.rae@odt.co.nz

Copyright © 2022 The Otago Daily Times

Link to ODT article here.


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Frazer Barton