Sole partner Peter Long started Long Howland Lawyers and Advisors in Gunnedah, New South Wales in September 1994. The presence of four coal mines and an abattoir in the region meant the firm specialised in personal injury.
But the original direction of the firm changed in December 1994 when a farming client sought the firm's help after his cattle were quarantined as a result of being contaminated by cotton pesticide. This resulted in a class action, McMullin v ICI 1997, being initiated in the Federal Court. The action grew, says Long, from 30 claimants to a staggering 760 grazing businesses and more than 2000 individuals from properties in north-western NSW and south-western Queensland.
"I think we ended up with seven extensions of our overdraft in order to be able to get through to the 1997 judgement and I think if the bank hadn't given us that final extension we would never have been able to finish the case and win it," he says.
This positioned the firm to practise in commercial litigation, including conducting other class actions for rural products that were defective or caused loss and damage, such as contaminated stock feed, agronomic advice, soil contamination and spray drift onto crops. The firm has also moved into helping clients with other legal needs such as succession planning and structure advice for businesses and wills.
Thirteen staff members are currently employed, including one lawyer, a person licensed to do conveyancing and a litigation clerk. During McMullin, the firm was the second-biggest employer in Gunnedah, behind the Shire Council, with 42 staff members. While no investment is made in advertising, the firm instead relies on word of mouth.
Long Howland currently has cases running in all states in Australia. Long says that Gunnedah is not affected by the current global financial crisis because an "artificial economy" has been created by the mining industry, which has also ensured a steady workflow for the firm.
Long Howland is currently defending 64 farms in the Mining Warden Court against Coal Mines Australia - a subsidiary of BHP Billiton - who are seeking to mine under the Liverpool Plain, one of the most fertile areas to farm.
Living the country lifestyle, while also doing intellectually stimulating work, says Long, means Gunnedah is a fantastic place.
"I think that's probably one of the things that people have a misconception about regarding country practices - that they all do fairly boring work and certainly nothing that's at the knife edge. But I think that's more a matter of how you shape your practice," he says.
- Sarah Sharples