Bryce Edwards: NZ’s “most powerful” lawyers

Bryce Edwards: NZ’s “most powerful” lawyers

To understand who it is that runs a country, it’s always useful to focus on the top legal figures. Usefully, the annual list of New Zealand’s most powerful law figures has just been released – compiled by the Lawfuel website. See: The Power List 2023.

The annual law Power List always provides an insight into the changing nature of the legal eagles in both government agencies and corporate boardrooms. The annual list is especially useful in identifying the up-and-coming people behind the scenes, as well as giving a sense of how New Zealand’s elite is changing.

This year there are a significant number of newcomers to the list, illustrating the fast pace of change in the legal landscape. There are also a large number of women on the list. Previously, only 30 per cent of the list were women, but this year it increased to nearly half. And indeed, the top three spots are all taken by women.

Women at the top

Solicitor General Una Jagose tops the list again. She also represents the increasing dominance of public service lawyers at the summit of the New Zealand legal landscape. As Solicitor General, Jagose runs Crown Law and serves as the government’s chief legal adviser and advocate in the courts.

Lawfuel notes that when the former head of the GCSB was first appointed as Solicitor General in 2016, she was the first woman in the role since it was established in 1867, and she “remains highly regarded for her abilities as a lawyer and leadership qualities”.

Next on the list is another former spy boss, Rebecca Kitteridge, who was appointed as Deputy Public Service Commissioner last year, and has recently been seconded as the acting head of the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She is the second most important lawyer because “she enjoys the ear of some of the most powerful public servants in the country, as well as the Prime Ministers she serves under”.

New government, newly important lawyers

The fact that we have a new government, and one that is “intent on rapid and major changes” will make Cassie Nicholson, the Chief Parliamentary Counsel, particularly important in 2024 according to the Power List, as she is in charge of drafting all the legislative changes being pushed through Parliament. Hence Nicholson has the rank of 8 on the list.

The Government’s stated focus on the cost of living and regulating industries abusing their market dominance means that number 9 on the list goes to “Cartel buster” Grant Chamberlain, who is the Cartel Investigations Manager at the Commerce Commission.

Similarly, at number 11 on the list is his boss, Adrienne Meikle, the Chief Executive of the Commerce Commission. According to Lawfuel, “Meikle has built a solid career as a go-to operator with Government ranging across some of the most influential agencies and departments in Wellington.”

The Commerce Commission deputy chair, Anne Callinan, is also in the top 20, with Lawfuel noting that she will be crucial in the “powerful use of the Comcom’s powers at a time of political and economic scrutiny with cost of living and various regulatory issues occupying headlines.” The performance of the Commerce Commission is coming under intense scrutiny, and Callinan, a litigation lawyer with 30 years’ of experience, will be central to turning around the reputation of the agency.

In terms of political debate, the co-founder and chair of the public policy think tank New Zealand Initiative, Roger Partridge, continues to see his star rise – he’s risen a few places on the Power List to number 19 on the basis of putting forward pro-business perspectives on key economic and social issues. Not only is he frequently articulating these in the media, Partridge the former executive chairman of Bell Gully is also influential as an adviser to the University of Auckland Business School as well as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).

The new government might be expected to rely on advice from former Attorney General and Cabinet Minister Chris Finlayson, who as a King’s Counsel and frequent commentator on politics, law and the Treaty, is still highly influential. He’s ranked as the 20th most powerful lawyer in the country.

In the media, the new head of the Newstalk ZB Plus website, Philip Crump, is seen as increasingly politically influential. Crump has a background as “a highly experienced senior lawyer”, first at Russell McVeagh, and then globally at some of the world’s most prestigious law firms. He’s come in at 32 on the power list.

With a growing number of integrity scandals in parliamentary politics, King’s Counsel, Maria Dew also moves up the rankings to number 12. The list points out that Dew “continued her role as a trusted investigator on profile issues, whether it is political parties (the Labour Party with sexual assault allegations and the National Party had her investigate historic bullying allegations about Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell)”.

Lawyers involved in political donations trials have gone up in this year’s rankings. Davey Salmon KC is at 18 (up from 33 last year), and has had his reputation as a leading barrister enhanced by winning a number of landmark cases, such as beating the Serious Fraud Office in their attempt to prosecute people involved in the NZ First Foundation donations case.

Tudor Clee also successfully represented the defence in the NZ First Foundation donations trial. According to Lawfuel, the success “elevated his profile further and demonstrated a capacity to deal with politically sensitive and complex litigation, as much as the legal aid work that once saw him as the ultimate ‘car boot’ lawyer and ‘The King of Crime’.” Clee is now the 35thmost powerful lawyer according to the power list.

The Serious Fraud Office’s Karen Chang has rocketed up the power list to number 28 after becoming Chief Executive last year. She used to be a senior prosecutor at Meredith Connell.

Powerful government agencies

With a new emphasis on the importance of regulatory oversight of industries, the Financial Markets Authority has become an institution of focus for law. The FMA is the government agency tasked with promoting and facilitating the development of transparent, fair, and efficient financial markets. The Head of Enforcement, Margot Gatland, is a new entrant in the legal Power List, at number 17, as she is tasked with ensuring the compliance of finance firms.

The Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, also has a deservedly high place at number 10, moving up the ranks this year: “From fraud and scams to extreme weather and abuse of power issues, the Ombudsman’s role has continued to play a role across the seemingly ever-increasing spectrum of travesties and abuses of power that intrude upon the daily lives of New Zealanders.”

The new Health NZ inaugural Chief Legal Counsel Andrew Cordner is at number 15. According to Lawfuel, the former Fonterra Chief Counsel has the daunting task “of planning and commissioning of services and the functions of the 20 former District Health Boards to remove duplication and provide true national planning”.

At number 24 on the list is Natalie Walker, whose firm Kayes Fletcher Walker has responsibility for many of the government’s prosecutions in Auckland. The Power List points out that she is “married to former Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias’ son, Ned Fletcher, who is also her law partner, a lawyer and historian specialising in research into New Zealand’s law and history.”

The Inspector-General of Intelligence & Security since 2021, Brendon Horsley, has gone up the rankings to number 31 based on an “increased security situation with the rising tensions” around the globe.

Ethnic diversity on the list

There is growing ethnic diversity amongst New Zealand’s legal elite. In terms of Te Ao Māori, Paul Majurey is a leading force. He’s risen to number 29, based on heading “Treaty negotiations and settlements for a dozen iwi in tribal collectives as well as chairing the Maunga Authority, a $115 million iwi investment fund and a tribal group that has partnered with a major developer to build more than 500 apartments in Auckland.”

Previously anointed as the “Power Justice Minister” Kiri Allan isn’t on this year’s list. However, her former wife Natalie Coates is now number 33, having entered the list “as a former academic and lawyer has been at the forefront of indigenous rights law issues”. According to Lawfuel, “Now a partner at Kahui Legal in Wellington she advises on public law, commercial matters, trust law, Maori land law and Maori, human and indigenous rights.” Coates is also anointed as “Lawyer of the Year for 2023” by Lawfuel, noting her role in the groundbreaking Peter Ellis “case permitting a deceased person, for the first time in New Zealand history, to invoke tikanga to clear his name of wrongdoing.”

Former founder and head of Chen Palmer law firm, Mai Chen, has dropped down the list, but remains on the list due to her position as “a thought leader on key legal, business, and public law issues.”

Looking after the super-profits

The highly profitable banks in New Zealand put a lot of emphasis on having top lawyers, especially as the questions persist about their competitiveness and whether further government regulation is required. So, at number 14 on the list, David Bricklebank, looks after the legal affairs of the country’s largest bank, ASB, which has over $180bn in assets, and a recent profit of $1bn.

Another major company, Fonterra (profits of $1.6bn on a turnover of $24bn) now has its legal affairs looked after by Jackie Floyd, who is number 27 on the list.

The government Super Fund (the “Cullen Fund”) is worth $58bn and now has Cristina Billett as its General Manager of Corporate Affairs. The former Bell Gully corporate lawyer is now at 32 on the power list.

Wealth management company Jardens now employs lawyer Silvana Schenone as their Managing Director and Head of Investment Banking, and she’s now at number 34 in the power list. Schenone recently published a book, “Duties and Responsibilities of Directors and Company Secretaries in New Zealand”.

Todd Corporation General Counsel Mark Weenink is at 36 on the power list. His company, involved in energy, infrastructure, property and telecommunications, is said in the Power List to be “possibly the most powerful private business in the country”, and Weenink has responsibility for Todd’s ongoing regulatory requirements.

In terms of private law firms, Chapman Tripp is said to be the top one – with 200 legal staff and 60 partners. The firm’s new Chief Executive, Pip England, took over about a year ago and hence is now at number 23 on the power list.

Who’s been left off the list?

In compiling the annual Power List, Lawfuel’s John Bowie does an excellent job of following the trends in the industry, and especially in public law – where the relationship between government and society overlaps, with issues of important issues of constitutional law, administrative law, and democracy.

But Lawfuel’s annual list will always be subjective and fraught with rankings and the question of who should be included. There will be complaints and differences over who is and isn’t included. Notably, some former highflyers are left off the list this year, such as Geoffrey Palmer KC, Anna Rawlings of the Commerce Commission, and Deborah Chambers KC.

Arguably the list also doesn’t pay enough attention to those law lobbyists that fly under the public radar. For example, Tim Clarke is a partner at Russell McVeagh, and regarded within the industry as New Zealand’s leading corporate lobbyist, and therefore extremely influential.

So, for a counter to Lawfuel’s latest Power List, see Business Today’s Top 10 Most Influential Public Law Attorneys in New Zealand 2023, and The Lawyer Mag’s The Most Influential Lawyers in New Zealand.

Also, although it’s over a year old, it’s worth examining Herald journalist Sam Hurley’s Power list: NZ’s top corporate and civil lawyers (paywalled) andPower list: New Zealand’s top criminal barristers.

 

Lawfuel’s full Power List of lawyers:

1 Una Jagose KC

2 Rebecca Kitteridge

3 Madeleine Laracy

4 Frazer Barton

5 Michael Heron KC

6 Mark Todd

7 Rajesh Chhana

8 Cassie Nicholson

9 Michelle Redington

10 Peter Boshier

11 Adrienne Meikle

12. Maria Dew KC

13 Alysha McClintock

14. David Bricklebank

15. Andrew Cordner

16 Anne Callinan

17 Margot Gatland

18 Davey Salmon KC

19 Roger Partridge

20 Chris Finlayson KC

21 Grant Chamberlain

22 Phil Newland

23 Pip England

24 Natalie Walker

25 Brent McAnulty

26 Pip Greenwood

27 Jackie Floyd

28 Karen Chang

29 Paul Majurey

30 Grant Pritchard

31 Brendon Horsley

32 Philip Crump

32 Cristina Billet

33 Natalie Coates

34 Silvana Schenone

35 Tudor Clee

35= Mai Chen

36 Mark Weenink

37 Helen MacKay

38 Rachel Reed KC

39 Dr Jim Farmer KC

40 Stacey Shortall

 

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Dr Bryce Edwards is the Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)