The Accidental Lawyer—Nicholas Wood

The full weight and majesty of the law took a while to percolate for Faculty of Law alumnus Nicholas Wood.

Nicholas Wood

Something of a self-confessed accidental lawyer at first, Nicholas is now special counsel in litigation and dispute resolution for Chapman Tripp in Wellington.

He is also a prize-winning legal author, capturing the J F Northey Memorial Book Award last year with his academic text Sale of Goods in New Zealand, published in 2018.

Nicholas recommends studying law but says “you have to be patient”. “It took a while for me for the law to gel. I didn’t really enjoy it for the first few years— it didn’t seem to make sense to me straight away, it was more something that you absorb.

“You can do well, and memorise information and regurgitate it—I could do that—but to see the bigger picture, that took years. “I’m still not entirely sure why I chose law. It looked interesting, and the unique blend of logic and language appealed to me. I also figured it would provide a way to make a living. “

But I never did law thinking, ‘oh yay, I’ll get to be in a courtroom and how dramatic it will be’. As it happens, I am in litigation, so I am in courtrooms occasionally. But ideally you would resolve your client’s dispute before you get to a courtroom.”

Nicholas was born and raised in Masterton. His family moved to Palmerston North when he was 12, where he stayed until he shifted to the capital aged 17 to study at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

He has been in Wellington ever since.

“I remember I wasn’t happy to leave Masterton—children are never happy to move. In hindsight, though, the move was well-timed. As a teenager, Palmerston North had more happening.

“When we moved there, it had just opened New Zealand’s first multiplex cinema complex (in 1990), Downtown Cinema 6, which was one way for a teenager to keep out of trouble.”

At the University Nicholas completed a conjoint LLB (Hons)/BA, in which he did a double major in French and politics.

“So I had a higher workload for five years, starting in 1996. If you were doing a conjoint degree, as I did, it was actually the fourth-year when you started to choose courses that interested you.

“Virtually all of this is accidental, really. After I had completed law school, I got a job at Chapman Tripp as a law clerk and we were allowed to do rotations in our first year.

“The idea was we would have one-third of the year in one department, one-third of a year in another and then the other third doing the profs course, which you have to do before you are admitted to the Bar.

“I originally thought I’d want to end up in one of the commercial teams but that it would be useful to have a little experience of litigation first, just to get the flavour of what it is like.

“So I started on my supposedly three-month rotation in the litigation department—and I haven’t left yet.”

Nicholas says he enjoys litigating because it is problem solving.

“You are trying to sort out people’s disputes for them, or maybe even trying to make sure they don’t get into a dispute in the first place."

And you’re not always dealing with individuals or organisations when they are at their best, which can be challenging.

“Litigation is quite varied. You get to look into other people’s businesses or industries, and you know nothing about their line of work to start with and you leave knowing quite a fair bit.

“I did a lot of work over the last 10 years on Canterbury earthquake claims for an insurer, trying to sort out disputed insurance claims. Even though you are acting for the insurer, you are not going to get a good result unless, to some extent, the homeowner can be brought along. So you’re always looking for a resolution that will be robust and sustainable.

“A couple of earthquake trials I acted on, in 2017 and in 2018, were complete victories for our insurer client. In each case, the claim was that the home was very badly damaged and needed to be rebuilt. And in both trials the High Court found, no, it’s not badly damaged or damaged at all and it certainly doesn’t need to be rebuilt.

“Each of those trials lasted about two weeks. They were very factually involved—we were going over each house, the foundations, the roof, the inside, the outside, room by room, down to the kitchen cupboards, basically every crack that could be found

“To have mastered something as factually detailed as that and have the court agree with you 100 percent and say, ‘actually you’re right’, was very satisfactory.”

Most of his litigation work has been in the High Court. During the earthquake cases he had felt “more like a project manager”, supervising up to 30 other lawyers.

“That was one of the highlights. I’ve really enjoyed that mentoring of less experienced staff, helping them build up their skills and confidence.”

Nicholas recalls his first solo appearance for a substantive hearing in the High Court and how nervous he was.

“I was sick with nerves beforehand.

“I remember getting a question somewhat out of left field from the judge on a particular point of statutory interpretation, but if you’ve done your preparation (as I had) and read widely, you can usually find a creditable and sensible answer.

“Once you get into the swing of things, advocating in court can even be pleasurable. But I still get nervous before a hearing.”

Nicholas relished his time at the University but says it was hard work, particularly studying law.

“It was the people that made Vic such an enjoyable experience. Across law, French and politics, there were great and personable lecturers— including a few characters—who inspired and who also pushed you to do your best.

“I enjoyed my time in the Faculty, particularly in the last two years when I began to feel that I might actually understand this ‘law’ thing. But once I’d completed my degrees, I really wanted to try my hand at private practice.

“I was sure that I could have done postgraduate study and had a successful career as a legal academic, but I wasn’t so sure whether I’d be much chop in practice. After nearly 20 years in practice, I think I’ve almost figured out what I’m supposed to be doing!

“One of the advantages of doing law at Te Herenga Waka is, of course, the proximity to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which didn’t exist in my day, so you can go along and watch appellate cases if that takes your fancy.

“I also found the Faculty offered quite a wide range of courses at 300 level, which helps round out your legal knowledge, even if you don’t end up using what you learnt in Law and Literature or Comparative Constitutional Law in your day-to-day legal practice.”

Outside work, Nicholas reads a lot of non-fiction and tries to keep up his French.

As the author of an award-winning book, he says there was “a lot of naivety involved”.

“The publisher approached me about writing a book for them, and at first you think, ‘I just have to write something, it won’t take too long, yes of course I can do that’. And then once you’ve committed to it and get into it, you realise, ‘oh, this is a ton of work’.

“I was writing between 2015 and 2018, so that’s evenings and weekends. I was holding down a full-time job and writing a book from scratch.

Nicholas studied French through high school and university, and after his conjoint degree also completed a BA (Hons) in French. “Something I did twice there was appear in plays that were staged towards the end of my time at the University. Both were comedies by Molière, whom English-speakers can think of as France’s equivalent of Shakespeare.

“The first was Tartuffe, and I played the title role. I’m very introverted, but fortunately the director, one of my French lecturers, wanted my glasses off for the role.

“Since I’m extremely short-sighted, the advantage of glasses off was I couldn’t see anything, and it’s impossible to get stage-fright when you can’t see the audience. But you can hear them when they laugh.

“I remember one night the audience just lapped up the comedy and the whole cast was on fire—it was an enormous rush to get such a good audience reaction.

“The second play was Les Fourberies de Scapin, another comedy, and I played the role of Géronte, one of the two old men in the play. It was glasses off again, as the (same) director this time wanted me to wear a face mask portraying me as a somewhat caricatured old man.

“Both plays were a real challenge to memorise the lines in French and deliver them with verve.”

While it is also easy to get stage-fright in a courtroom, Nicholas says he makes a point of keeping his glasses on in court.