Alexander Lawrence Herdman was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 17 July 1869 to Emma Hepburn Brown and her husband, Alexander Herdman, an accountant. He was educated at Otago Boys' High School from 1883 to 1885. He then worked in the National Bank while studying law part time, and was admitted to the Bar in 1894. The following year he took up residence in Naseby, where he established a legal practice and also serviced another small community, Palmerston. In July 1895 he commenced his lifelong association with Freemasonry when he was initiated into Lodge Palmerston; in May 1918 he was to become grand master of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand. On 28 January 1896 at Dunedin he married Eva Matilda Smith. They were to have four sons and three daughters.
In Naseby Herdman entered local politics and was elected mayor in 1898. The town was too limited a field for his ambitions and about 1902 he moved to Wellington. He began to establish a practice there with Edward Kirkcaldie, but was soon invited to return to Otago to contest the seat of Mount Ida in the 1902 general election. Herdman was deeply opposed to the Seddon government and won the seat from a pro-government candidate. He continued his practice in Wellington, representing his seat as an absentee.
Herdman was defeated at the 1905 election and was out of Parliament until 1908. That year he won Wellington North by a comfortable margin of more than 900 over his nearest Liberal opponent. However, because the Liberal vote had been split, the seat was not really safe. By this time he had identified himself with the opposition group coalescing around W. F. Massey, and he stood thereafter on the Reform Party platform.
From his first entry into Parliament, Herdman was actively concerned with the reform of the civil service. This had expanded greatly as a result of Liberal government policies, but was haphazardly organised and open to a good deal of political patronage. Claims that it was biased in favour of, or against, Roman Catholics or other minorities were common political currency of the time, though they were rarely substantiated.
Herdman introduced his first Public Service Bill in 1904 and others in 1909 and 1911. Initially he attacked political patronage and what he believed to be the inefficiency and wasteful expense of the public service; by 1911 he was promoting the concept of scientific management. He made wide enquiries overseas in framing his bills and was much influenced both by the American Progressive movement and by groups such as chambers of commerce at home. All his life he was to believe in reducing the interference of government in business and promoting the adoption of business methods in government.
When Reform took office in 1912 Herdman took over responsibility for a commission (the Hunt commission) appointed by the preceding Liberal government to inquire into the civil service. This gave him the opportunity to press through the Public Service Act 1912 which created the public service commissioner and standard conditions of appointment, employment and promotion throughout the public service.
Ranked fifth in cabinet, Herdman was appointed attorney general, minister of justice, minister of stamp duties, and minister in charge of police, prisons, the Crown Law Office and the Public Trust Office. This, however, understates his real influence, for he was one of the strongest personalities in the government with extremely rigid views about the maintenance of law and order. In addition, he was a close personal friend of John Cullen, the commissioner of police, who was a man of similarly autocratic temperament.
It was widely believed – and very likely – that Herdman's personal influence dictated the heavy government response to the 1912 Waihī miners' strike, when police used armed force, and to the waterfront strike of 1913, when special constables were deployed to disperse the strikers. One of Herdman's legal contemporaries, Sir Hubert Ostler, described him as 'absolutely fearless, and ready to employ force ruthlessly for the purpose of upholding law and order'. Ostler went on to claim that 'It was his firmness which really saved the country from anarchy and bloodshed during the great strike of 1913, in which the leaders made a determined attempt…to create a revolution by violence.'
Shortly before the strike, in April 1913, elements of the Auckland police attempted to form an association to press for improvements in their very poor conditions of employment. This was done respectfully and had some public support, but Herdman and Cullen treated it as near mutiny. The association was at once prohibited and the leaders were transferred and soon driven out of the police. Herdman's lack of confidence in police loyalty later in the year may have made him and Massey the more willing to enrol special constables to control the waterfront strike.
When the National government was formed in 1915, Herdman retained most of his portfolios and gained the Returned Soldiers Department. He made it clear that he regarded anyone interfering by word or deed with the war effort as an enemy of the state, to be treated as such, but his heavy use of the War Regulations Act 1914 to suppress dissent and strike action caused some concern even among moderate opinion. The most spectacular case was the arrest of the Tuhoe prophet Rua Kēnana in April 1916 with a degree of armed force out of all proportion to the liquor licensing charges concerned. It is clear that with Herdman, in the concept of law and order, order came ahead of law.
Herdman was often loosely described as a conservative, but one perceptive observer noted that he was in fact a 'Liberal of the old Manchester school with its policy of laissez-faire'. This would account for his reaction to the tightening of temperance legislation during the war: where he might have been expected to support this on the grounds of efficiency, he opposed it on the grounds of not interfering with the liberty of the individual.
It was rumoured as early as 1915 that Herdman wished to become a Supreme Court judge, even though he was by no means outstanding as a lawyer. On the retirement of J. E. Denniston in 1918 he used his own powers as attorney general to appoint himself to the Bench. This caused considerable comment even outside the legal profession. He resigned political office on 4 February 1918, a fortnight before the death of his wife, Eva, on 17 February.
Herdman served briefly as a judge in Christchurch, where he married Alice Elizabeth Brown on 31 August 1921, five days after her divorce was granted. There were no children of the marriage. He then transferred to Auckland where he was stationed for the remainder of his career. He was an adequate rather than a distinguished judge. He served briefly as acting chief justice on the death of Sir Charles Skerrett in February 1929, and was knighted the same year.
After resigning his judgeship in July 1935, Herdman made a final foray into politics. That year he contested the Parnell seat, nominally as an independent but in fact in strong sympathy with the anti-socialist Democrat Party, which was swept away in the Labour landslide. Herdman retired afterwards to the Lake Okataina district for the remainder of his life. His wife, Alice, died in London, England, in December 1938. On 30 August 1950 at Cambridge, New Zealand, he married Minnie Marion Lawrence (née Finnis), an elderly widow who died in October 1952. He himself died in Rotorua on 13 June 1953.
Herdman was a leading figure of the Reform government and the coalition National administration of the First World War. His authoritarian temperament contributed to the heavy-handed style of government of that period. His most enduring political achievement, however, was the creation of a public service commissioner. The system he created in 1912 remained unchanged in essentials until 1988.