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John O'Toole, celebrating 50 years of legal practice

Dec. 2019

This month's newsletter is dedicated to our very own John O'Toole, who is celebrating 50 years of legal practice.

John was born in Northern Ireland, outside Belfast and at the age of 5 moved to Malaya where his father worked for the colonial police force for 6 years. The family emigrated to New Zealand when John was 11. John attended Auckland Grammar School and then studied at the University of Auckland, doing three years full time and three years part time.

John's somewhat famed adventures began after he was admitted to the bar in December 1969. While he initially spent five months with a law firm, he soon decided that an OE was called for. To that end, John planned to head off to the United States. The planning of this trip beforehand consisted largely of finding a book at Whitcoulls about student travel in the United States, which helpfully included information about an orientation programme for foreign students.

John travelled by ship to Florida and, with help from the orientation programme was soon attending university lectures in Miami and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, while he stayed with a law professor. John got even more involved with the local law scene when a local lawyer asked after him – and, on being introduced, promptly found John a suit and took John to court. The lawyer introduced John as a "attorney from New Zealand" who was assisting him. John adds the judge was most impressed and after the hearing, he was invited to join the judge in his chambers for a coffee.

John then travelled north to New York – by Greyhound bus, no less – and met up with another lawyer who showed him around the city. Moving on from the USA, John took a ship to Southampton, England, and tried to find a job – which he notes was fairly difficult at the time. However, he eventually found a job as a law clerk with a firm of solicitors in London, where he focused on personal injury claims and work for unions. After this, John travelled around Europe, including stops in Russia and Greece.

In 1973, John decided it was time to head home – via East Africa, of course. He flew to to Nairobi in Kenya, then hitchhiked and went by bus down east Africa to Cape Town where he was able to catch a ship back to Auckland.

In Auckland, he joined the firm Wright Wiseman & Co, eventually becoming partner in 1976. At Wright Wiseman & Co, John encountered a large variety of work; State Insurance third party claims, acting for Birkenhead Council, litigation in family law, employment law and civil spheres and estate and town planning. Memorable too was his litigation work involving Merck Sharpe & Dohme, the major multinational pharmaceutical company.

During his practice, John also bore witness to many of the changes that took place in the New Zealand legal system during the 1970's and 1980's. By way of example, one case of John's in the early 1980's concerned a client who had set out trying to make whisky cream liqueur. Unfortunately, a fire that burnt his factory to the ground. His client's insurance company refused to pay out, suspecting arson. Finding the evidentiary material to support his client's case severely wanting, John considered that the Official Information Act 1982 (which had just been passed) might be of some use. John served an OIA request on the police and went to the central police station where the police provided him with stacks of evidence – including all the statements of evidence for the insurer. John suspects that he may have been the first practitioner to make an OIA request – the writer contends that it is also possible he was the last practitioner to have an OIA request responded to so expediently.

John stayed with Wright Wiseman & Co until 1996. He subsequently joined Holmden Horrocks as a partner and now works as a consultant three days a week, with this schedule making him, in his words, "the envy of my friends" – a great work/life balance.

John's favourite parts of his career of choice have been helping and working with people – which, as anyone who has met him can attest, comes naturally to him. He has also enjoyed the huge variety of work that he has encountered– particularly in the earlier days where there was less specialisation in law.

Outside of his career, he enjoys spends time with his wife, Carol, and looking after his six grandchildren, aged between 1 and 8. He also (obviously) enjoys travelling and tramping all over the globe which has included walking the Inca Trail in Peru and around Mt Blanc in France. On next year's agenda are possible trips to Sri Lanka and cycling in Estonia– although potentially with less reliance on ships, hitchhiking and Greyhound buses.

Written by Julia Holden, Junior Litigation Lawyer.

Email: J.Holden@holmdenhorrocks.co.nz