Mayne Wetherell partner: 'Retain an entrepreneurial spirit'

Chris Harker urges lawyers at all stages of their careers to be interested in the business of law

Mayne Wetherell partner: 'Retain an entrepreneurial spirit'
Chris Harker

Tax specialist Chris Harker has had an eventful year. In addition to helping to launch the tax practice at Mayne Wetherell, he has made partner at the firm – a role that puts him in a position to participate in the firm’s leadership.

In the process, Harker has widened his skillset and gleaned valuable business experience. Thus, he urges all lawyers, whether young or not-so-young, to keep an entrepreneurial spirit and be open to opportunities.

In this interview, Harker talks working with different specialists in the legal profession, the need for tax law to be accessible, wanting to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and looking forward to first-time fatherhood.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I chose law because I enjoy the process of taking complex technical problems and distilling them into principles that can be communicated and discussed in a logical way. In my area (tax law), there is ever increasing complexity driven by domestic and international tax reforms. It is both challenging and rewarding to help clients navigate through these.

Working as a tax lawyer also provides the opportunity to contribute to the development of tax policy and law in New Zealand. There is a strong sense of being part of a profession of individuals who are interested in what they do, and who care about the future of the tax system in this country.

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

As seems to have been the case across the profession, it has been a really busy year for the firm at a time when everyone has been dealing with COVID-19 disruptions and working from home for prolonged periods (especially in Auckland where I am now based). As we look ahead to the rest of the year, we’ve just kicked off our recruitment round, and I’m looking forward to getting closely involved in this and hopefully meeting some fresh faces who’d like to join our team.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

We’re in the fortunate position of being well set up from a tech perspective, allowing for teams to be based partly in the office and partly at home and to work seamlessly together. Another positive development in recent years is the growing availability and use of more sophisticated tools to assist with due diligence and document review. When I started practising law over 10 years ago, the tools available were much less sophisticated, which meant a lot more lawyer time being spent on tasks that were sometimes quite tedious!

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

It has been a big year! Just over a year ago, I was part of a team that moved from another firm to establish the Mayne Wetherell tax practice, and shortly after that, I became a partner in Mayne Wetherell. I’m enjoying the sense of ownership that goes with being a partner; the firm has a flat structure which means all partners are involved in the running of the business, and everyone has a part to play in shaping the firm’s culture.

The move and helping to lead the establishment of a new tax practice within Mayne Wetherell (which included setting up a Wellington office) were also a great opportunity for me to gain a broader set of skills and business experience. I would encourage all young (and even not so young) lawyers to keep an open mind about opportunities that might come along, to retain an entrepreneurial spirit, and take an interest in the business of law. You’d be surprised what you can achieve.

What should the profession focus more on?

Something I’ve noticed since moving to Mayne Wetherell that perhaps wasn’t as obvious when working at a larger full-service firm is how much opportunity there is to partner with other specialists from across the profession, as well as within my own firm. I’ve worked on several transactions now in which we’ve been providing the tax advice while working alongside transactional lawyers and sometimes other specialists from one or more other firms. It enables clients to choose the best specialists from across the market for a particular matter, and for the lawyers involved it’s a great opportunity to get to know, and work with, lawyers who practise in different areas and are based in different firms.

It’s been a good reminder to me that the legal profession provides a great opportunity for collaboration, not just within a firm, but across the profession, and I think that’s something that as a profession we should value and try to make the most of.

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?

That’s a big question, so I’ll focus on it from my perspective as a commercial lawyer specialising in tax law. In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the volume and complexity of new laws, and a move to more prescriptive and less principles-based legislation. One consequence of this is that the tax system risks becoming incomprehensible except to those who specialise in it. That might not seem like a terrible thing for those of us who do specialise in tax law, but it’s probably not a good thing more broadly, especially for a small country like New Zealand that can’t afford to have the world’s most detailed and complex rules and regulations!

There’s also a danger, I think, of one area of law (say, tax) becoming so specialised that it develops in isolation from the wider legal system of which it forms part. In practice, the issues that individuals and businesses encounter rarely arise in siloes; tax law needs to interact with employment law, property law, company law and so on, so it’s important that tax laws aren’t designed and drafted in isolation from those concepts.

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

On the personal front, my wife and I are looking forward to (all going well) welcoming our first child into the world in May. We are very excited.

If you were given an opportunity to spend a day with anyone (living or dead), who would it be and why?

It’s very topical given the tragedy we currently see unfolding, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would have to be on the list. The concept of leadership is much talked about, sometimes in a theoretical way, and sometimes with the sense that special skills and training are needed to be an effective leader. I think he shows a more human and practical side to what it means to be a leader – in the most horrific of circumstances, you have a former comedian who through his sheer courage and tenacity has mobilised those within his country against the odds and inspired people across the world.


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