A love of science led this James & Wells litigation partner into IP law

Learning about new areas of science and technology is still Gus Hazel’s favourite part of the job

A love of science led this James & Wells litigation partner into IP law
Gus Hazel

Gus Hazel always thought he would go into the sciences or the medical field. However, a holiday job at a hospital when he was a teenager reoriented his path. Outraged by the outcome of a case he heard about that was driven by a judge’s inability to understand science, he proceeded to study science and law on graduating from high school—a road that eventually led him to IP law.

Today, learning about new areas of science and technology remains a beloved part of Hazel’s work as a litigation partner at James & Wells’s Auckland office. He continues to be fascinated by the amount of advanced science and tech that goes into everyday products, and by working with “the people who push technology, creative and applied arts forward,” he said.

In this interview, Hazel talks about the implementation of tech into work processes as a result of COVID-19, maintaining a sense of purpose and direction through work, the international economy’s impact on his practice area and how adopting Aussie rules football would make New Zealand perfect.

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What made you choose a career in law?

My father was a doctor and I kind of assumed I would go into medicine or science when I was a teenager. I had holiday jobs at the hospital working in the laboratories mostly, doing whatever the researchers there wanted me to do—a lab slave basically.

I was working with an expert in chromatography who was called as an expert witness in a horse doping trial. In short, he had to give evidence on whether the testing done on a particular horse’s urine sample showed it had been given a stimulant and if so, when. His evidence was clear—the trainer had been framed. The evidence showed the drug had been added to the horse’s urine after the sample was taken (i.e., it had not gone through the horse’s system and been metabolised).

The judge didn’t understand the science (and admitted that) and the trainer was convicted—he was banned for many years. I was outraged that such an injustice could occur simply through a failure to understand science. I finished high school about a year later and went on to study science and law. Intellectual property was a logical progression from there.

What do you love most about your job?

I really enjoy learning about new areas of science and technology, and the ingenious things people are doing in all sorts of fields. There are so many things in day-to-day life we take for granted without realising how much research and development work goes on behind the scenes.

For example, I’ve done a lot of work in building materials over the last decade and have been stunned by how much technology and advanced science has gone into even seemingly simple products to make them stronger, safer, lighter, fire resistant, cheaper to produce and so on. Learning about these things and working with the people who push technology, creative and applied arts forward is highly engaging.

I also enjoy the process of taking what can be very complex information and distilling it for a legal audience—extracting the key ideas or principles of whatever is at hand.

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

We continue to have a flow of very interesting work—a lot of which I cannot discuss, of course. As far as the firm is concerned, obviously 2020 has been a challenging year—as it has been for so many around the world. I’ve been impressed at how our people have adapted to the challenges in order to keep things moving forward, whether that be working from home, incorporating new technologies into their daily workflows (such as Zoom and Teams) and how we have all banded together to support each other through the challenges.

I am very proud of my team and my firm for responding so positively and for being dedicated to keeping the firm at its best. After lockdown, we had rolled out a remote working initiative for those who were keen to work from home some of the time. It was still pretty early days when we went into this second lockdown (in Auckland at least) but the signs are this was an initiative that was appreciated by our staff and (I think and hope) likely to work well for all involved.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?

I am most proud of how all of our people have risen to the challenge of working through the lockdowns and other difficulties of the pandemic. It is a daunting and worrying time but I couldn’t be more proud of the way that everyone, right across the firm, at all levels, has done their best to fulfil their roles and to keep delivering.

In some ways, it has been good for us all to have work to focus on rather than being worried all the time about global events which are of course mostly well beyond our control. Obviously, we are all aware of those things, but knuckling down to the things you can do to keep our firm and the country working helps keep us sane and have a sense of purpose and direction during what are otherwise pretty crazy times.

What should the profession and law firms focus more on?

Law is an inherently conservative profession—slow to change and with a great deal of inertia to move away from “how things have always been done.” The pandemic has forced us all to work in new ways, and despite what seemed to be widespread worries across the profession and the community at large about how remote working and the like would impact productivity, I think we have all been pleasantly surprised to see people remaining productive and adapting much better than we anticipated or feared. Law firms have of course traditionally worked from offices, with everyone commuting each day, meeting clients in person, attending court in person and so on. A lot of that will continue but we have seen clear proof that many of these things can be done remotely, at least some of the time, and that doing so can save time and increase efficiency.

A simple example—I have matters before Australian courts and have attended relatively simple hearings (directions and case management, for example) through Teams and other videoconferencing programs. This has worked well and indeed, a judge of the Federal Court of Australia noted how well it worked, how it saved everyone attending at court and thus a lot of professional time and was something he intended to continue after lockdown and social distancing stopped. Previously, I would have spent time travelling to and from the court and then waiting for my matter to be called—I might spend two hours or more doing this for only five minutes “on my feet” addressing the court.

For simple matters I think we could all benefit from those kinds of things being dealt with remotely/through technology more. The profession needs to evolve and be willing to try new ways of working.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

The biggest unknown at the moment is the international economy. Intellectual property is a particularly international form of legal practice—we act for businesses all over the world—and the extent to which the world economy suffers long-term contraction remains to be seen. Thus far, we have not seen the decrease in work from COVID-19 that we first feared, but it is still relatively early days.

Hopefully, if the pandemic does continue for a long time, we will all learn to work around it so to speak—to find new ways to do what needs to be done. Indeed, there will be new economic activity spurred as a result—we have already seen it, from the massive increases in online service offerings to the delivery of goods and ingenious workarounds to meet our daily needs. I have always been a hopeless cook and shopper, tending to buy odds and ends for dinner on my way home almost daily. I am a big convert to online grocery ordering and delivery, and have even been seen cooking from time to time—changes forced on me but no doubt for my own good.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

I am originally from Australia and have been in New Zealand almost 16 years now. Most of my family is still in Australia and I have tended to visit on a regular basis to see family, for Christmas and for business reasons. I am glad to be able to “Zoom” my family (even my elderly parents use it now), but I do miss seeing all these people who are important in my life in person. I of course hope that I will be able to do that again in the not-too-distant future.

I am also a keen traveller and alpine climber—I miss seeing new places and new mountains. That said, I can hardly imagine a better place to be “stuck” in than New Zealand. Not only have we seen one of the most successful responses to the pandemic internationally, but it is also a beautiful country with great people and (by international standards) a harmonious and peaceful society. If you had to be in just one country for the foreseeable future what would come out ahead of New Zealand? If it had real football (i.e., Aussie rules) it would be perfect!

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