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Jack Porus: the business of running a law firm

9 Mar 2023

| Author: Jenni McManus

Jack Porus never particularly wanted to be a lawyer. And his mother, of Lithuanian Jewish stock, would have preferred him to be a doctor. But Porus, the former managing partner at Glaister Ennor and one of the country’s top property lawyers, instead had a hankering for business. So, he turned down a place at Auckland medical school, telling his mother he was enrolling for a commerce degree.

But Mrs Porus, a holocaust survivor who emigrated to New Zealand in 1949, was a strong woman. “She said ‘if you’re not going to be a doctor, at least be a lawyer’, Porus says. “So, the compromise was that I did both.” But after two years at university, Porus was still hankering for the “real” world. He was offered part-time work in the tax department of accounting firm Barr Burgess and Stewart and sought advice from his Uncle Bob.

Uncle Bob”, who was married to Porus’ mother’s sister, happened to be Bob Narev, a commercial stalwart at law firm Glaister Ennor. Narev had a much better idea: the accounting job was a good position, he told Porus, “but we’d rather hoped you’d come and join us here”.

Another holocaust survivor, Narev had been a father figure to Porus, who was only 12 when his father died. He was tempted by the Glaister Ennor role, but it was fulltime and he still had several years’ study ahead. And law school dean Jack Northey was known to disapprove of students working part-time while at university. But Northey, to his surprise, gave him the green light. “Because it was Glaister Ennor, he said I’d better take it,” Porus says.

A fulltime job alongside fulltime study was very full-on, Porus says. But 50 years later, he is still at Glaister Ennor. And not just at the same firm but in exactly the same Norfolk House offices on Auckland’s High St, deep inside what was once the heart of Auckland’s legal community.

Part of his decision to join the firm was its reputation. “It was busy, but I got through it and realised when I came here what a privilege it was because [firm founder] Stuart Ennor was very highly regarded as a litigator and Bob Narev was very highly regarded as a commercial lawyer.

Also in the line-up were Peter Woodhouse (the son of former Court of Appeal President and ACC architect, Sir Owen Woodhouse) and Paul Davison (the son of former Chief Justice Sir Ron Davison). “So clearly if those very prominent jurists felt that this was the place for their sons to be, then I couldn’t go too far wrong.”

The businessman

Because he was so interested in business, Porus immediately took an interest in the way the firm was managed. And one of the first things he noticed on his arrival in 1972 was the complete lack of electronic equipment in the office (though he eventually found a dictaphone buried at the back of a cupboard). Secretaries took oral dictation and the firm’s accounting was done with adding machines and big, bound books. Fax machines (now all-but-obsolete) were yet to be invented.

Porus says his colleagues recognised his interest in the business of the law. By his mid-20s, he’d made partner and was appointed managing partner not long after that. His contemporaries, however, didn’t enjoy such a meteoric rise. “I was a bit of a rarity,” he says. “Because I worked fulltime and studied fulltime, by the time I graduated I already had an enormous amount of experience. So, I actually realised my dream. I ran a business. It just happened to be a legal business.

It was a fortuitous appointment. Soon after, Porus found himself enmeshed in a profession that was about to undergo a major restructure. Lawyers until the late 1970s-early 1980s tended to be groups of professionals working together, almost as co-operatives. Much of their work focused on conveyancing, supported by a scale of minimum fees. But when this scale was abolished, lawyers were forced to compete in a more business-like way.

Porus says the conveyancing scale had been a major support for the financial stability of legal practices and once it was scrapped, the immaturity of the marketplace became clear. “You saw lawyers under-cutting each other in an effort to grab business and you got ‘kitchen-table lawyers’ who were working out of their homes,” he says. Inner-city practices suffered as clients became reluctant to come into town when lawyers were setting themselves up in the suburbs. “It was quite a challenging period for legal practices.”

Many lawyers struggled, leading to the mergers of law firms from the mid-1980s. Some businesses ceased to exist, but Glaister Ennor resisted the temptation to merge and turned down invitations from several players. “It turned out to be the right strategy because a lot of the mergers didn’t succeed,” Porus says. “We just concentrated on continuing to drive our practice forward.”

The firm decided to compete on expertise rather than price. “So instead of focusing on everyday conveyancing, we moved into land development which required greater expertise and there wasn’t the same pressure on fees.” It also began to develop expertise in areas like trusts and estates, commercial property, family law and litigation and put great store on developing and preserving relationships with clients.

“Many of the firms became very transactional,” Porus says, focusing on speed and efficiency rather than building long-term relationships. “We adopted the philosophy that the transaction may end but the relationship continues. So, we were very much a relationship-based practice and we’ve continued in that way to the present day.

“It translates into all sorts of things – for example, we never argue about fees. If a client is unhappy with a transaction or the level of fees you charge, just resolve it and move on because the relationship is more important than that transaction.” Narvev, Porus says, put it well: ‘We are a firm with a large number of clients rather than a number of large clients.’ “We did later get a number of large clients, but the basis of this firm is looking after a large number of clients who are everyday people…. the grassroots of it all was just us looking after families and their needs.”

Porus was also instrumental in setting up Glaister Ennor’s mortgage securitisation practice. Common in the 1990s, these initially involved contributory mortgage lending, using a law firm’s nominee company. The firm would amalgamate funds from clients who wanted to invest and lend it to others to buy commercial property. It could go horribly wrong: the most high-profile example was two Upper Hutt lawyers, Patrick Renshaw and Keith Edwards, who were jailed in the early 1990s for stealing more than $29 million from clients. But contributory mortgage lending was “pretty standard stuff” for lawyers at the time, Porus says, and while it waned over the years, the past 12-24 months have seen a renewed demand for second tier, non-bank mortgage lending.

The director

Alongside his legal work, Porus has held several of significant directorships over the past 30 years.

It began in 1990 when a client wanting to invest in New Zealand commercial property instructed Glaister Ennor from Canada. Together, they built a business that ultimately became the country’s largest listed property company (Kiwi Income Property Trust).

That same year, Glaister Ennor was also asked to act for the Tiong family from Malaysia – the first foreign buyer of state forests in New Zealand. Porus has worked closely with this family ever since and it is now believed to be the third largest forestry investor in New Zealand.

Eventually, he became a director of Ernslaw One, the family’s New Zealand investment vehicle. The Tiongs also bought the Neil Group – a land investment company that was formerly involved in housing. Again, Porus was asked to join the board.

Next up, the family bought a shareholding in a small public company, Regal Salmon. But the business was in trouble. Approached to invest more money, the family decided to take over the company. Once again, Porus was deeply involved, providing not just legal guidance but also business and operational advice. Eventually the company took over another large seafood business, Southern Ocean Seafoods, and amalgamated both to form NZ King Salmon, with Porus as a director. Some years later the Tiongs decided to sell half the business to private equity firm Direct Capital. Again, Porus helped with the sale.

The insurer

About 10 years ago, a couple of young entrepreneurs visited Porus, saying they’d developed a program that could deliver life insurance policies online – a world first. The pair had approached Pinnacle Life and been told by the managing director that they needed to raise $2 million to launch the product.

Porus knew the managing director through his Rotary connections and regarded him highly. “I raised that money, with some was my own, and became a director of that company,” he says. Eventually he became chair of Pinnacle Life. All this has enabled Porus to remain interested in the law. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I found my way into a firm that was very receptive to me changing my role over time and getting into that business area that I really hankered for right at the beginning.

“So, they allowed me to run Glaister Ennor as a business which has enabled us to avoid the need to merge with others. We’ve just continued to grow. We’ve focused on being a mid-sized firm, we haven’t desired to be one of the really big firms. We wanted people when they came in here to feel that it was still a warm, family-stye law firm. I think to a large extent we’ve achieved that, even though we’ve got a number of larger clients now. “They’ve allowed me to move from domestic conveyancing into commercial law work and then into commercial property and into my directorships which has enabled me to change my career but stay in the same place.”

The consultant

Porus turned 70 last year and is still going strong. Midway through 2022 he stepped down as managing partner and relinquished his partnership on 30 November. As a consultant he still carries a full workload but is looking to manage things in such a way that “certain clients will be passed to others to look after but I will retain the larger ones”.

Free from the pressures of partnership, he says he’s enjoying the “eat-what-you-kill” lifestyle of a consultant where he can work as much or as little as he likes. “I’m hoping the release of that pressure enables me to pull back a bit on the amount of work I’ve been doing.” A top priority for him and his wife Lynn is travel. Both their sons live in London and the couple has tended to spend a couple of months a year in the UK.

Rotary has been another big interest where Porus was instrumental in rejuvenating the membership. “Basically, when you walked into a Rotary club you saw a sea of white-haired males and we needed to try to change that perception. We wanted to reduce the average age and create a greater diversity in the club, and we largely succeeded in doing that.”

Being Jewish is also a big deal for both Porus and his wife. He is a member of the Auckland Hebrew congregation and was its honorary solicitor for about 10 years. “We feel very strongly Jewish but we’re not religiously Jewish,” he says. “We practise it in terms of [loving] to observe all the customs and festivals. Many of closest friends are Jewish so we still feel very culturally Jewish but we’re not religious people.” ■

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