The legal stars align as we farewell Brian Keene QC

A person looking at ADLS today might be hard-pressed to recognise it as the same organisation it was in 2009.

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And that is because the last few years of ADLS’ existence have seen it as the only one of a number of district law societies to evolve into a national, member-focused body – one that is innovative, nimble and unafraid to lead the way or speak out on important issues.

Not only that, but membership is at an all-time high from some 2000 lawyers at incorporation to well over 4000 today, with more than 40% of those coming from outside of Auckland. As retiring President Brian Keene QC himself said, “The butterfly which is now ADLS has emerged from its cocoon.”

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Of course, this transformation has been and will remain very much a team effort and many ADLS members, along with Council Members, our specialist legal Committees and the dedicated team of ADLS staff at Chancery Chambers, have all had a role to play.

However, one man has led the charge over the last six years, and it was in his honour that the stars of the legal profession gathered at Auckland’s Northern Club on Friday 24 March 2017.

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As aptly put by the evening’s guest speaker, the Hon Justice Raynor Asher, Brian Keene QC has truly been “more than a spokesperson”.

“You took the plunge and made a serious commitment – you became a visionary and a leader,” his Honour said.

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Justice Asher reflected on the vital role that law societies have always played in the New Zealand legal scene. He applauded Mr Keene QC’s efforts to turn ADLS into a national body and the role that it has taken in providing another voice alongside that of NZLS.

“We benefit from having more than one body vigorously representing the interests of the profession. The fact is there is plenty of room for a number of representative bodies.”

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His Honour praised the expansive view that Mr Keene QC has taken of the part ADLS should play. Not content with simply representing the interests of its own members, his eye has always been on how ADLS can benefit the wider profession and the public at large, how it has engaged with the judiciary and other legal institutions, and how it can mentor and inspire young lawyers who represent the profession’s future.

“You care passionately about the profession and its role in the community. You’re prepared to give freely of your time and energy to help others and in causes you believe in.

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“You have worked assiduously with the South Auckland judiciary, and have been a wholehearted and active supporter of the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court (pretty good for a commercial silk!). You’ve engaged with Government and have been a wonderful champion of the District Court.”

Justice Asher also noted Mr Keene QC’s real interest in young lawyers and the work ADLS has done with universities around the country and Auckland Law School’s Equal Justice Project (EJP) under his leadership, reflected in the 500 or so friends the Society’s Young Lawyers’ Facebook page has now attracted.

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Justice Asher has been pleased to see how ADLS has expanded its reach beyond Auckland and has actively sought representation from different parts of the country and other professions, including appointing non-lawyers to Council and having a Christchurch-based Councillor.

“These developments reflect your energy and commitment, and the rest of the country is excited to have a ‘with-it’ alternative body that they can relate to.

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“You’ve stuck your neck out, pursued difficult initiatives and spoken truth to power. You’ve stabilised the ship and now she is truly on course.”

In reply, Mr Keene QC said he felt “overwhelmed by the occasion”, and was quick to share the credit for ADLS’ achievements since 2009 with those who have supported and assisted him, making particular mention of CEO Sue Keppel, the other members of Council (including John Hagen, who also now completes his time on the Council), and practitioners such as Jonathan Flaws, Miriam Dean QC, Brett Morley, Arthur Young, Peter Kiely and Tim Jones, who have all given of their insight, wisdom and assistance.

“I have been spurred on by people who are passionate, who believe ADLS has a place in the legal spectrum. It’s all about finding the people who will do what is necessary to be done.”

Mr Keene QC reflected on his tendency to take the opportunities which have arisen before him, rather than pursuing a pre-planned path. This somewhat haphazard approach has had at least two fortuitous consequences – it launched him on his legal career (a chance decision on enrolment day at Auckland University saw him join but abandon the queue for Political Studies and join the one for Law instead), and brought him to a position of leadership at ADLS. The latter step was certainly unplanned, but seemingly was meant to be.

Back in 2008, Mr Keene QC says that initially he did not engage in the “one society” debate, and it “never occurred” to him to stand for Council. That was until he found himself on the other side of arguments over the principles to apply to fee revisions and he was prompted to take action.

Around that time, he also fell into conversation with Frank Godinet (“This was a big mistake.”). And so, the stars drew him down a path he had not foreseen, and brought him onto ADLS’ Council in 2011, where he became Vice President in 2013, and later President in 2014.

“When I joined ADLS’ Council, there was stasis. There did not appear to be any plan beyond maintenance of the current services, and most of those had been passed to NZLS.

“It went against my instincts not to innovate and not to use all of the goodwill that ADLS had. We had a critical mass and a supreme opportunity to benefit the profession, the institutions with which it interacted, and the public which they served.”

A self-described “creativity junkie”, Mr Keene QC undertook a review of the organisation, with a wide brief to make necessary changes.

“The idea of being ‘merely relevant’ never stoked my fires. I wished ADLS to be an engine of modernisation for the profession.

“Innovation requires you to take risks and be wrong on occasion. Better that than choosing immobility. I wanted us to keep ahead of the game rather than falling behind it.”

Mr Keene QC is particularly pleased that initiatives instigated under his leadership have seen ADLS’ age demographic (“which was pretty appalling when I first joined Council”) lowered considerably. He mentioned the work of Stephanie Nicolson with younger lawyers and law students, the introduction of the Newly Suited Committee, and the innovation of having EJP students sit on our Committees.

“We want to make sure that the top students come into the law and we don’t lose them. It has been a marriage made in heaven.”

Mr Keene QC said that he was gratified to have received a number of letters in recognition of his time as President. He read excerpts from those of Sir Ted Thomas, patron of the Equal Justice Project, thanking him for “going out of [his] way” in support of the Project, and from Dame Judith Potter, who acknowledged Mr Keene QC’s “huge contribution” to ADLS and to the profession in general.

It is clear that Brian Keene QC will be missed by all with whom he has worked. It is to be hoped that his “Brexit” from ADLS will not be complete.

ADLS and its members look forward to the next chapter of its future under the leadership of new President, Joanna Pidgeon.

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