New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

NZAL Lawyers successfully launched

05 July 2019 - By Mai Chen

NZAL (New Zealand Asian Leaders) Lawyers was launched in Auckland on 10 June. The launch was well-attended, with over 125 members of the profession and distinguished guests, including the past President of the New Zealand Law Society Kathryn Beck, and Raymond Huo MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee of Parliament. Pacific Lawyers’ Association President Tania Sharkey, representatives of Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Law Society) and the President of the Auckland Law Students Association, Lina Kim, were also in attendance. NZAL was established in 2013 to connect, inspire and grow Asian leaders across New Zealand, and these values and vision will underpin NZAL Lawyers.

NZAL Lawyers was founded following a conversation earlier this year with Law Society President Tiana Epati, who asked why there was no association for Asian lawyers.

Mai Chen

There are an increasing number of Asian lawyers and clients in New Zealand. One in three Aucklanders are Asian and Statistics New Zealand is projecting that 51% of people will identify as either Asian (22%), Māori (20%) or Polynesian (9%) in New Zealand by 2038 (although 65% would also identify as European, due to people identifying as mixed race).

In addition, there are a significant number of Asian parties in the court system. Data from the Ministry of Justice shows that in the District Court, the languages most needing interpretation are Samoan and then Mandarin, whereas in the High Court it is Mandarin, Samoan, followed by Cantonese. For some Asian clients, a limited ability to speak and write English well, and coming from a culture which is very distant from the Kiwi culture and which has different attitudes towards the rule of law, can pose particular challenges to their access to justice.

Stereotyping and discrimination against Asians can mean that Asian lawyers can lack confidence, and feel that they need to be better than everyone else in order to succeed. Some Asian lawyers may also struggle with English as a second language or have a pronounced accent, and may find written English difficult to master. Of course, some Asian lawyers were born in New Zealand and do not experience any of these issues.

NZAL Lawyer objectives

The aim of NZAL Lawyers is to offer collegiality, guidance, and wisdom to the growing Asian legal community in New Zealand. Foundation members include senior and younger lawyers from private practice, government and academia. NZAL Lawyers is offering mentoring – so far 55 Asian lawyers have indicated that they would like to be mentored, and more than 25 more senior Asian lawyers have agreed to act as mentors. The Law Society President has announced plans to allow those mentoring to claim CPD credits, which NZAL Lawyers mentors will be able to take advantage of. Non-Asian lawyers are also sought to mentor Asian lawyers. Some Asian lawyers feel ghettoised in Asian firms servicing only Asian clients and would welcome a Kiwi lawyer mentor.

NZAL Lawyers will also be a repository of expertise on Asians in the law to assist all lawyers to successfully advise and deal in a culturally appropriate way with Asian clients. NZAL Lawyers can also assist courts, the Ministry of Justice, law schools and continuing legal education providers to ensure equal access to justice for Asians in New Zealand.

Law Society President Tiana Epati officially launched NZAL Lawyers at the Auckland event. The attendees heard from her about the importance of collegiality and looking after one another in the legal profession. Ms Epati said Asian lawyers are the members of the profession most likely to suffer from bullying. She emphasised the importance of Asian lawyers standing together in the profession, which has been monocultural for a long time. Ms Epati shared that the superpower of Asian lawyers, as well as Māori and Pacific lawyers, was being able to navigate different worlds with ease. She ended her speech with a whakataukī: E tū ki te kei o te waka, kia pakia koe e ngā ngaru o te wā – stand at the stern of the canoe, and feel the spray of the future biting at your face.

Succeeding within the judiciary

After Tiana Epati’s speech, the attendees heard from Judge Sanjay Patel, who spoke on how Asian lawyers could succeed within the judiciary. Judge Patel said that he hoped his appointment to the bench could be an inspiration to other lawyers, saying “If I can do it, so can you.” Judge Patel said that it was important to have someone that inspires you, and whose style you can emulate in finding your own courtroom style.

In the law your reputation is everything, and you must align your values with those of the legal profession. Sanjay Patel said that Asian lawyers’ cultural diversity offers them unique perspectives and allows Asian lawyers to see alternative paths and solutions. It can be easy to view being diverse as a disadvantage, but it is actually an advantage.

Judge Patel shared a message from the Chief District Court Judge, Jan-Marie Doogue, that the reputation of the law profession should reflect the changing demographics of society, and in doing so, it will enhance the legitimacy of the judiciary. He encouraged suitably qualified Asian lawyers with judicial aspirations to put forward an expression of interest to join the bench.

Succeeding in legal practice

Arthur Loo, who is a co-founder and partner at Loo & Koo Solicitors, spoke about how Asian lawyers could succeed in legal practice. Mr Loo spoke to the value of diverse experiences in legal practice, noting that when he commenced legal practice he was already experienced at dealing with people from all works of life, a skill he had gained from working at his parents’ fruit shop as a teenager. He said he felt this had given him an advantage over his European colleagues.

In the mid-1990s, changes in the demographics of Auckland meant that there was room for a firm which serviced Chinese-speaking clients, and so Mr Loo set up Loo & Koo with Kenneth Koo. Arthur Loo spoke of the importance of language to the successful practice of law – while staff at Loo & Koo would speak Chinese to clients, staff spoke English among themselves in the office to maintain a high standard of written and spoken English. Mr Loo spoke about the wide range of diversity among his client base, noting that Loo & Koo devised a file coding system which enabled them to immediately determine the native language of the particular client, whether that be Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean, for example.

Succeeding in the state sector

Former Ombudsman and Special Counsel at Chen Palmer, Leo Donnelly, spoke on how Asian lawyers can succeed in the state sector. Mr Donnelly emphasised the importance of having confidence in your own capabilities, and emphasised that your cultural background should never be a reason to lack confidence. He said there’s never been a better time to join the state sector, as the sector now realises that diversity brings strength.

Mr Donnelly said Asian lawyers’ natural balancing of different parts of their identities means that they are well equipped to consider the balancing exercise between individual rights and the rights of others which is a crucial part of state sector legal practice, given the requirement on the state sector to make decisions in a manner that is fair, just and transparent.

He shared with the attendees that his mother, a survivor of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima who migrated to New Zealand, taught him and his siblings to adapt to their new culture, but not to assimilate and lose their Japanese heritage. Mr Donnelly ended his speech with a Japanese saying: “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but at the top, there is only one moon to behold.”

Lawyers engaged by Asian clients

Stella Chan, co-founder and partner at Forest Harrison Lawyers, spoke about the issues and challenges faced by lawyers engaged by Asian clients.

Ms Chan emphasised that Asians come from countries with a different legal culture from New Zealand. They do not understand the New Zealand legal framework, and do not realise that the law is different to that in their home country. But Asian clients face an uphill battle in gaining this understanding, as there is little information about the New Zealand legal system available in their home languages. As a result, Asian clients rely heavily on their lawyers to help them navigate the legal system.

Ms Chan also said that the language barrier is a big issue for Asian clients. Often, Chinese documents have to be translated, but as some concepts do not exist in both languages, translations can suffer. Moreover, some interpreters used in court have been unable to capture accurately what the client is saying, which has worrying implications for achieving a just result.

She said many Asian clients do business on a “handshake” basis, and may not realise that agreements need to be put in writing, or otherwise evidenced, in order to be enforced in the case of a dispute. Often, Asian clients lend money without any acknowledgement of the debt, or a loan agreement. Asian clients can also have difficulties in family law, lacking familiarity with concepts such as shared custody.

Sir Anand Satyanand

The event ended with a speech from the former Governor-General, Ombudsman and District Court Judge, Sir Anand Satyanand, via video link.

Sir Anand spoke of his enthusiastic support for NZAL Lawyers. He said that having support is vital, peers are crucial, and echoed Arthur Loo’s comments that success in the law depends upon building and maintaining your reputation.

Sir Anand said lawyers should take every opportunity to watch other lawyers in court, read books on advocacy, and upgrade their abilities by public speaking. Sir Anand said the trick to getting on in court was to seek opportunities to assist other lawyers, and when given the opportunity to present a case of your own, to prepare it to the point of complete familiarity. Lawyers should try to make every case argued the most interesting one that the judge has heard that day. Lawyers should remember that they are members of an honourable profession and should seek to develop associations with other lawyers they respect.

Sir Anand shared a recollection of one of his early cases, Police v Emirali [1976] 1 NZLR 286. His client had been accused of possession of cannabis, from tiny traces detected by police inside his vacuum cleaner. The client was unsuccessful in the Magistrate’s Court, but in the then-Supreme Court and again, on appeal, in the Court of Appeal, Sir Anand successfully argued that the court should adopt the “usability test” from a line of cases from the United States and South Africa, which stated that a person could only be in possession of a narcotic if the amount possessed was enough to be usable. Sir Anand said that this case, which had the most meagre of circumstances, showed that the New Zealand legal profession is a meritocracy. If you have enough skill, creativity and dedication you will be able to rise to the top as an Asian lawyer.

Just the beginning

This is only the beginning of NZAL Lawyers. A joint event is being planned with colleagues at the Pacific Lawyers’ Association and Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa, which will be a first.

The next NZAL Lawyers Symposium will be held on 4 September at 5:30pm. The symposium is eligible for CPD credits. We are also looking for Advisory Board members, so please get in touch if you want to help this new organisation and have the qualifications to do so. Please contact membership@nzasianleaders.com for more information.

To find a list of the people who have joined NZAL Lawyers, visit the website.


Mai Chen mai.chen@chenpalmer.com is Chair of New Zealand Asian Leaders and the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business. She is managing partner at Chen Palmer and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Auckland School of Law.

Last updated on the 5th July 2019