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Having it all: how barrister Roderick Mulgan manages to practise law and medicine at the same time

23 Jun 2023

| Author: Rod Vaughan

To describe barrister Roderick Mulgan as something of an overachiever is a complete, and some might say, outrageous understatement.

Not only has he qualified as a lawyer and a medical practitioner but is an accomplished author, columnist, businessman and free speech advocate to boot. By any yardstick, he is an extraordinary individual who is making a deep impression on two of the most distinguished and demanding professions.

And this is what makes Mulgan’s achievements all the more remarkable: he’s probably the only person in New Zealand who is actively practising law and medicine at the same time.

“I know of others with both degrees but they usually choose to work in one or the other. I think I am unusual running two in parallel,” he says. This raises an important question: how does he manage to juggle both jobs?

“I tend to spend the first half of the week doing law and writing and have my rest home rounds in the second half,” he says. “There is some flexibility with the medical rounds when I have a court date.”

Mulgan is also a man of eclectic interests. This includes parrots – in fact, he has only recently returned from a bird-keeping conference in Melbourne.

First priority

Now living in Auckland, Mulgan grew up in Eastbourne on the shores of Wellington harbour, enjoying a childhood that involved lots of sailing and bushcraft.

His 90-year-old mother still lives in the family home, the place from which he attended St Bernard’s College in Lower Hutt, an institution that helped to foster his lifelong interest in literature.

Mulgan’s passion for the written word may stem from his father,  a radar officer who returned from the Second World War on the Queen Mary and became a court reporter for The Evening Post in Wellington.

“I recall him discussing the cases that were on and reading his copy on the phone in the hall to newspapers around the country when there was a big case on,” Mulgan says.

This may have influenced his eventual decision to study law but becoming a member of the Bar was not his first priority. From an early age he had his sights set on medicine and in his own words never wavered from that objective.

“The idea of immersing oneself in other people’s problems and trying to sort them out appealed to me,” he says.

So, he headed south to Otago Medical School to achieve that aim, along the way meeting his future wife Sarah who was studying psychology and marketing.

After graduating he flirted with the idea of a career in surgery but that wasn’t to be. “In the end, the immediacy of dealing with people directly and the issues they bring through the door led me to community medicine where I have stayed.”

In the ensuing years Mulgan gained a fellowship of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners before moving to Auckland in 2008 and taking over a practice that served aged-care facilities.

Today, the practice has five contractors who, along with Mulgan,  serve around 13 Auckland aged-care establishments, ranging from big players like Ryman and Metlifecare to suburban owner-operators.

Along the way, Mulgan has found time to start health supplement manufacturer Lifeguard Health and write several books that, among other things, examine the impact of the western lifestyle on the aging process.

‘Gut gardens’

So, what were the drivers behind all of this?

“I have always had a nagging view that conventional medicine didn’t pay enough attention to lifestyle factors,” he says. “In my entire medical degree, there wasn’t a single lecture on nutrition, for instance, even though that is a major influence in how healthy we stay as we age.”

Mulgan says spending time with the elderly led him to grapple with this issue and write about it.

“My first book was The Internal Flame which discusses the way a slow burn created by our immune systems malfunctioning as we get older is the basis of heart disease and cancer, and the elements in food that can suppress it.

“Basically, a wide diversity of lightly processed plants has considerable power to transform the health of the general population if they were but to embrace it, also novel things like seaweed, spices and cacao.”

And just in case folk get the wrong idea, Mulgan is quick to point out that he is not a vegan. But he does believe maintaining good gut health is vital to enjoying a long, healthy life.

“It has been demonstrated in the last 20 years that the large bowel has an astonishing diversity of micro-organisms, far more than ever suspected. They found them when gene sequencing technology came along and it became possible to trawl bowel motions for DNA fragments.”

Mulgan says there are as many micro-organisms in the gut as there are cells in the entire human body. “They all have their own genes and genes make bioactive proteins. So, independent life forms living inside you make bioactive proteins that float away in your blood and manipulate your organs.

“We have all been hacked,” he jokes.

Mulgan says one of the purposes of the right diet is to feed what he describes as the “gut garden” and not the person. “It has been shown that the particular population of bowel bugs you harbour affects your body weight and seems to have affinity for brain disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s etc.”

So is diet the key to a long and healthy life, as many suggest? “Longevity is still under consideration,” he says. “Octogenarians have different [diets] from the general population but is that cause or effect?”

Funding ‘miserly’

As someone who runs a company that is actively involved in rest/retirement home medicine, Mulgan is well qualified to pass judgment on the level of care, respect and dignity that the elderly receives in New Zealand.

“I think the institutionalised elderly do well in this country. The industry is well regulated and care standards are good but there is an issue that many can’t get doctors to serve them, particularly outside the main centres.

“Probably the biggest issue is that big chains like Ryman are taking over and they run a model of selling apartments to relatively fit elderly with a rest home unit in the middle of the complex as a selling point, so people can stay on the same premises when they lose their health.

“These units in the middle of big complexes are subsidised by the income off the core business, so they can cope with government funding being miserly, which it is, and there isn’t pressure on the government to make funding more realistic.

“Standalone facilities without those wider streams of income are struggling.”

And how does Mulgan himself face the prospect of growing old and what is he doing to prepare for it? I follow the well-known advice: eat well, exercise, stay actively engaged with multiple interesting things. Get good sleep.”

Why law?

On that score alone it would appear Mulgan is well on track to a ripe old age but what possessed him to become a lawyer as well?

“It was a toss-up in the first place which one I would do out of law and medicine,” he explains. “And as I got to my late thirties I wanted something new and I had always been interested in the law.”

He was by then married with two dependent children and carving out a demanding career in medicine. But he found a way of doing it by working night shifts as an emergency department doctor in Kenepuru Hospital north of Wellington and attending law school during the day.

“I didn’t know if I could keep it up until the end but I just took each semester at a time and eventually I was through. I came out with first class honours which was a nice bonus.”

It was an incredible feat and put Mulgan in a small and exclusive club of New Zealanders qualified to practise both law and medicine.

Unlike most lawyers, he has embraced the dark world of criminal law, dealing with hardened offenders who have often spent much of their lives in and out of prison.

“I like advocacy. I would be a hopeless solicitor,” he says. “I took crime because there is a steady stream of regular court appearances.

“Also, at the risk of engaging in a cliché, you can make a difference to people’s lives, being in their corner when the system is bearing down on them. Even repeat offenders respond positively to that.”

Mulgan says he recalls being a police doctor and noticing that he had never met a happy criminal. “Crime really doesn’t pay. It is usually the maladaptation of dysfunctional people. They need to be treated decently. Also, truly innocent ones do come along. Fighting for them is rewarding work.”

 

Clean slate order

So what does he regard as his most significant victory in the courts to date?

“My biggest success to date is getting the first-ever discretionary clean slate order in the High Court for concealing an historic offence. The Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act provides that minor offences be automatically concealed after seven years but not major ones. Up till 2018, no one had succeeded in [getting] such an order.

“I had a client who had molested an 11-year-old boy 20 years ago, lived a law-abiding life since then and wanted to move into a conviction-sensitive industry.

“We failed in the District Court, but succeeded on appeal. It is now obviously a precedent and I have obtained three more.”

Mulgan says some of the cases are tragic.

“One man in his sixties had been convicted at age 21 for sleeping with his 14- year-old girlfriend, in her parents’ house. He then went on to marry her!

“So [he] could never move beyond the junior stage of his profession because he had a conviction for sleeping with his wife.

“Another had sex with a hitchhiker who turned out to be 14. He too lived a law-abiding, successful life but couldn’t get promoted up the corporate business world. Both had their lives transformed by a concealment order.”

As a criminal lawyer, Mulgan says he is very concerned about the current crime wave in New Zealand with youth crime, in particular, seemingly out of control, motorcycle gangs outnumbering police, fewer criminals in prison and offenders sometimes receiving heavily discounted sentences.

“Very big questions,” he says, somewhat resignedly. “I admit I am not deeply informed but I am uneasy with ‘policing with consent’ which seems to be the modern way.

“The whole point of policing is when people are not consenting. I noted, for instance, that when protesters occupied Parliament recently, which you can argue is part of the democratic process, police didn’t intervene when some of them moved their tents to surrounding properties like the grounds of the law school.

“That was a disgrace. There was no excuse for non-intervention.

“I also wonder to what extent the force is taken up with filling out procedure forms back at HQ and not walking the streets. Also, a modern obsession with being kind and empathetic and not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

‘Remarkable resilience’

One person who can vouch for Mulgan’s sometimes larger-than-life personality is Auckland barrister and ADLS Council member Samira Taghavi, who has worked alongside him for more than 10 years.

She vividly recalls a trial she attended with him on Auckland’s North Shore.

“After the trial concluded, he said: ‘Sami, we have to make a stop at a funeral home because I need to issue a death certificate. You’re welcome to join me.’ So we made our way to this funeral home and I accompanied Roderick inside for him to examine the body.

“Obviously I stayed upstairs while he went down to fulfil his duties, but once he had issued the death certificate, we decided to grab a drink. It was indeed an enriching day to say the least!”

Taghavi says she has also been astounded by what she describes as his remarkable resilience. “No matter the situation, be it a yelling judge or a screaming client or even a last-minute case preparation, nothing seems to fluster him. He handles situations that would typically unnerve other lawyers with incredible calmness.”

She remembers another occasion in court where a somewhat fatigued Mulgan, who had just completed a night shift at Wellington hospital, was almost fully reclined in his seat, waiting for the case to be called.

“The judge humorously asked him if he needed a bed, prompting Roderick to promptly sit upright. Given his tall stature, leaning back wasn’t the best look.”

Taghavi says Mulgan’s medical expertise is also in keen demand from his colleagues. “When in a gathering of lawyers, Roderick often finds himself diagnosing various ailments and becoming a favourite guest at many functions, ultimately saving us all a trip to the GP.

“Another layer to Roderick’s intriguing interests is his profound love for parrots. His enthusiasm extends to the point of attending parrot-focused conferences.  While I don’t entirely comprehend this fascination, there’s no denying his obsession with these vibrant birds.”

The treaty

Crime aside, Mulgan has serious misgivings about moves to have lawyers observe the so-called principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“There is no agreement about what the principles are for a start,” he says.

“Further, treaty scholarship often claims that the chiefs never signed away sovereignty.

“Lawyers have to observe their duties and advance arguments even if they don’t agree with them, so might it become viable to submit that courts, exercising the sovereignty of the State, don’t have jurisdiction over Māori defendants? Stranger arguments have come to pass.”

Co-governance is another issue that troubles him.

“Yes, co-governance is a real risk. There are no natural boundaries. Separate courts? Separate Houses of Parliament?

“No state divided on ethnic lines has ever prospered and I really fear that is where things are going.”

Given his legal activism and forthright views on many issues, it might seem that a political career beckons for this highly talented lawyer and doctor who is also chairman of the Free Speech Union.

Not yet, it seems. “I think the Free Speech Union will do,” he says. “I identify as centre-right with considerable sympathy with the need for a welfare state and public funding of essentials. I do not define essentials as vanity light rail projects.

“I much prefer people with the purse strings to ask for a cost-benefit analysis before signing up to things.

“And I have deep respect for the power of a properly regulated free market, not anarchy, to spread prosperity across the whole community.”

 

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