Catching up with the law, Rory Sweetman

The Making of Russell McVeagh
R C J Stone,
Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1991, $59.95

The Story of Bell Gully Buddle Weir 1840-1990
Julia Millen,
Bell Gully Buddle Weir, Wellington, 1990, $35

How to respond to the recent publication of histories of two of New Zealand’s largest law firms? Uncharitable observers might detect an elaborate public relations exercise underneath the dust jackets. However, there are reasons other than image control to justify the volumes in question. The products of recent amalgamations, both firms have survived the trauma of merger and economic slump. Their histories also reveal a proud tradition of service to the New Zealand economy.

The present partners deserve credit for commissioning skilled historians to tell their firm’s story, rather than endorsing the sort of insider account which would conceal more than it revealed. Their reward is also the reader’s pleasure – two weighty tomes, splendidly illustrated and beautifully presented. Russell Stone’s book is the bulkier of the two, one third larger and twice as long in the making. He places the history of Russell McVeagh firmly in the context of a rapidly changing Auckland (and New Zealand) commercial climate. Stone locates three-quarters of his history in the 20th century (compared to half of Julia Millen’s) and does not shirk from analysing partnership divisions in recent decades. Nor does he let his appreciation of impersonal structural determinants overcomplicate his story or cramp his fluid writing style. His confidence in attempting a contemporary historical account is fully justified by results.

Julia Millen’s task in writing the history of Bell Gully Buddle Weir was the more difficult in that her two subjects were located in different cities for most of their existence. She overcomes this by writing alternate chapters on the component firms leading to their amalgamation in 1984. Millen weaves an intricate biographical web combining fragmentary sources to reconstruct the social background of her legal quarries. Her delightful personal touches make the book immensely readable. It emerges that the Russell family spawned no fewer than four separate law firms, each surviving today (albeit in altered form). Some of New Zealand’s lawyers were powerful players in the economic and political sphere: Thomas Russell, Sir Francis Bell, Frederic Whitaker. Unlikely heroes also surface, such as N L ‘Polly’ Macky and Thomas Buddle, as well as the inevitable sharp dealers.

Despite Stone’s brave attempt to persuade us that even lawyers bleed occasionally, the evidence shows that they invariably make money in boom and bust alike. Millen’s report that many solicitors were ‘on the verge of starvation’ during the 1930s depression did, however, bring a tear to this reader’s eye. Both books are enhanced by extensive appendices (brief biographies of all partners, lists of name and location changes, selected partnership agreements) which will be a boon to future researchers in this field.

 

Rory Sweetman is a historian who lives on Waiheke Island, Auckland.

 

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