A lawyer’s life in Christchurch – two years after the earthquake

Like most of the city’s workers, tax specialist Stephen Tomlinson was at his desk when the devastating quake struck on 22 February 2011. Trapped for several hours, due a collapsed stairwell, at his practice on the 15th floor of Forsyth Barr House, Stephen sought to make the most of his enforced down-time: he tidied his chaotic office. When a TV crew returned with him several days later (Stephen was allowed up to collect possessions in a strictly-managed recovery mission), the neatly filed papers and immaculate bookshelf belied the trauma Stephen and his colleagues had felt as they were holed up, waiting for emergency services to get them to safety that first evening.

As the principal of Tomlinson Law in the central city, Stephen says legal practice has changed a lot in the intervening two years, as Christchurch has struggled back to its feet.

Premises 

First of all, businesses needed to find new premises. Many firms moved into temporary premises, “squishing employees into a small space” and sharing facilities. While they call this “the new normal”, a phrase which has slipped into the vernacular to sum up how things are now, Stephen notes there is an ambivalence about the term, since it suggests permanency and a resignation to how things will be from now on.

They are determined it won’t be the case. Initially Stephen worked in a shared office in Riccarton, then moved in with a firm in Burnside. He had originally imagined it would only be a month until he was back in the city, but to this day Forsyth Barr House is in the red zone, thus Tomlinson Law is permanently displaced. He now works mostly from home, using meeting rooms in a communal office space, while he and other local lawyers decide what will happen in Victoria Street, where law firms are hoping to reopen shop.

If the Victoria Street development comes to fruition, the reality is that rent and insurance costs will be horrendously high – due to construction costs, operating expenses and insurance premiums, newly developed buildings in the city will be as expensive as those of the same size used by Auckland lawyers. For many lawyers, this will be twice as much as they paid in the past, yet their charge-out rates are still lower than their Auckland counterparts, simply because Christchurch clients are mostly small businesses (no Government or pseudo- Government services) who can only afford to pay so much.

With this in mind, people are getting smarter about making a smaller square metrage work for their business, and ingenuity prevails.

People 

Naturally, the first wave of flight caused problems for businesses whose employees left town. Other workers stayed a little while to sort out their affairs, but have subsequently moved away. There was a continuing exodus which has hopefully stemmed now, but it is difficult to get skilled practitioners from other centres to come to Christchurch because the previous reasons for coming – for example, lifestyle opportunities such as being close to the ski-fields, a lower commuting time – are no longer as attractive. Stephen has seen this impact the tax and accounting industries, and says it has been hard to recruit new staff.

Business isn’t all bad, however, depending on your area of work. The quake has thrown up matters that require tax advice, while government reform that is specific to Canterbury has raised novel issues. Insurance proceeds, the rebuild effort – all this has created more work. While this is good for people working in tax and insurance, work has dropped off in the areas of property, criminal and litigation – since the courts are not operating and there are inevitable delays.

Profitability 

For mid-size firms, profitability hasn’t been overly affected, but Stephen emphasises that it has taken a lot of hard work for businesses to maintain that result. Shifting and re-establishing premises and a client base takes time and effort, a distraction unaffected businesses don’t have to deal with.

That said, he is keen to impress how Christchurch lawyers are trucking along, and that “you don’t hear screams of impoverishment” from the legal profession. One unexpected and positive offshoot from the earthquake is that people tend to pay their bills on time, perhaps by way of appreciation that local businesses need all the support they can get.

Stephen says on the whole our Christchurch-based colleagues are “in pretty good heart”, so clearly it’s onwards and upwards for life in the Garden City.

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