David McGregor – A Life in Law

There are some who retire and take to the golfcourse for the rest of their years. And then there are those who merely slow down a little, shift perspective, stop to do a spot of rose-smelling, then go on to put the rest of us to shame with the amount they continue to achieve and contribute at an age when really they’ve earned the right to “take it easy”.

David McGregor is one such tall poppy, but such a genuine, personable and community-spirited man that he’s not one you’d want to cut down.

In December last year, David retired as senior partner with Bell Gully, following a 40 year stint as partner first at Buddle Weir, then making the move with that firm as it expanded and merged with Bell Gully. When it’s pointed out that he has never had to go to a job interview in his life, David smiles. “I have only had one job; it’s all I know!” This is, as it turns out, a mighty understatement.

Despite staying with the firm as General Counsel and continuing to do project work, David is currently experiencing the gear shift that highpowered, highly productive professionals encounter when they decide to step off the treadmill.

He says the biggest change is that he really appreciates the luxury of time. Life in a big law firm requires you to make the most of your time in order to be effective, but it doesn’t always allow you to develop relationships within the realm of normal expectations, he explains, as the environment is very commercial, disciplined and incredibly resourced. But the benefit of time that he now has is a huge adjustment “not to be thinking I have to be there at 7am” but deciding instead to start his day with a walk, maybe some breakfast, then to do some work, and then perhaps have a swim. He is finally able to satisfy his love of bird-watching (he’s an avid “twitcher”) and trout-fishing.

As part of the adjustment period, David also feels slightly disorientated by being out of the routine of 40 years in practice, but finds the newness of self-administration (like “changing the ink cartridge”) quite invigorating rather than unsettling.

But as he points out, what has carried him over is that he had a long string of appointments and obligations which continue to this day, past his retirement from the firm. Among many other things, David chairs the Pensions Appeal Board, he sits as a court-martial appeal judge, and is chairing a review panel for the Attorney-General on the development of a National War Memorial Park in Buckle Street in Wellington. He chairs “far too many” not-for-profits, works for various trusts, and maintains his involvement with the wine industry (which began in 1974), for which he is Honorary Solicitor – the legal guide he wrote specifically for the wine industry is available on Bell Gully’s website.

In his “spare time” he and his wife Rebecca take tour groups with his company Brigadier Tours, to the sites of New Zealand military campaigns in Greece, Italy, Crete and the Western Desert.

During his years in law firm practice, David even had time for involvement with ADLS and NZLS, principally organising a conference for each on two occasions, because “everybody was under the mistaken belief that because I was an army officer I knew how to organise such things”. He has served on the ADLS’s Public Issues Committee and is still a 2013 member of ADLS’s Environment Resource Management Law Committee.

During our interview, David speaks passionately about two core values or principles that he extolls to new lawyers and summer clerks; values he clearly lives by himself. One is loyalty – evident in a man who has spent his entire legal career with the same firm, “the most magnificent firm there is”, his enormous warmth for the place clear as he confesses he still talks to his secretary every day and keeps in contact with his old team in Public Law and Environment to keep up with how things are going.

But he acknowledges that his feeling about the importance of loyalty probably stems more from his military background than the law. The young David was keen to join the army and train as a New Zealand soldier at Sandhurst. However, the year he applied they changed the rules and NZ soldiers were being sent to West Point training academy in Virginia. Ineligible for the United States, he was persuaded to join the Territorial Army where he was so disenchanted by the “shambolic, Dad’s Army” manner of a TA parade, he promptly quit. Fate obviously had other plans, however, because soon thereafter his name was selected through the Birthday Ballot (“It’s the only Lotto I’ve ever won”), and David was conscripted into the army.

For a man who took his military training seriously and swiftly made his way to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant by the time he left three years later, David still remembers how angry he was at being paid less for his 14-week summer training work in the Army than his peers who were spending the months working in manual labour, earning a good wage to get them through university.

His military background served him well in civilian life, however – on completing law school and joining Buddle Weir, he made partner within two or three years, and attributes this in part to the fact that the other partners were ex-servicemen themselves, who encouraged the bright young fellow.

Fast-forward 40 years and David is still embroiled in the law in various aspects – so was this always his calling? As it happens, he went to Victoria University to be an accountant. “I got into law because everybody else was doing it”, he admits. His room-mates at Weir House were studying law, and David was fascinated by the legal system his friends were learning, so he switched courses.

The law has clearly kept him enchanted for four decades, though when pushed David wonders what his life would have been like if he’d been an entrepreneur. He references both his tour company and growing up in Rotorua as fostering an interest in tourism. The only other thing that brings a wistful look is the thought that he might have quite enjoyed being a journalist – the profession that his sister followed, before taking up the post of Equal Opportunities Commissioner (from which she has recently retired). She was a reporter who got a doctorate in law; he is a lawyer who loves the investigatory side of law and thinks he might have made a good journo.

Back to the values: David cites honesty as the most important principle for anyone in life, but most especially for those in the legal profession. “Absolute complete honesty and transparency” he says is critical, both in terms of the inherent nature of legal work, but also for building and maintaining successful relationships, and one’s own reputation. “The combination of honesty, loyalty and trust is reputation – and your reputation in the law is the most important thing you have.”

He loves the artwork in the foyer of the Vero building in Auckland city, where Bell Gully has its offices, which displays a selection of words and phrases. It’s the Maori proverb that he considers his mantra, which asks What is the most important thing in the world? “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata – It is the people, it is the people, it is the people”.

As David McGregor settles into a new way of life where he can spend more time with his three grandchildren, commit himself to causes and projects, then guide tourists around Cassino and El Alamein, it’s clear that retirement for him is more a change of direction than an abrupt halt. One thing is for sure – there is no golf course at the end of his rainbow.

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