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One lawyer’s teenage dream to help Pacific people

08 March 2019 - By Jock Anderson

In 2009 Wellington Girls College high-achieving 17-year-old Lagi Tuimavave declared she wanted to become a lawyer.

Encouraged by her family, and with her baby brother accompanying her, Lagi worked her way through university, achieving her LLB and BA in 2015 and her LLM in 2018.

While doing full-time study, and up until she joined Wellington Family Law last August, Lagi worked at the Victoria University Law School as Pacific law student co-ordinator for three-and-a-half years and at the Wellington court as a deputy registrar in the family and civil jurisdictions.

NameFaalagilagi (Lagi) Tuimavave
BornSamoa
Age27
Entry to lawGraduated LLB and BA (Samoan studies and cultural anthropology) from Victoria University in 2015, LLM in 2018. Admitted in 2016.
WorkplaceSolicitor at Wellington Family Law.
Speciality areaFamily law.

She has been volunteering at the Wellington Community Law Centre for four years and is a member of the Pacific Lawyers Association.

Lagi Tuimavave

Lagi lives at home with her parents and other siblings. “My Mum, Piilua, works at a hotel and my Dad, Tautasi, has been caring for our baby brother, who is nine.”

“Dad has been the carer while we have been at work and college. Dad picks us up and takes us to where we need to go. I have four younger siblings. A brother Tauasosi (24) is a professional rugby player (with Southland), a sister Loliga (23) lives in Samoa, another sister Grace (22) and nine-year old brother TJ. He is the blessing, he is everyone’s child.”

Single, Lagi says she has a duty to look after her family and the elders.

Her parents came to New Zealand in 2003. “My parents come from not as well off a family. We lived off the land.”

“They always wanted to give us the chance to have an education so we can contribute to our families in Samoa. Dad’s name was drawn from the Pacific people quota. 

“I guess when I was in college – and everyone knew this – I always wanted to be a lawyer. But because of the challenges that came with it – English is my second language and I’m still learning – at the time I thought the best way to improve my English is to challenge my vocabulary and go with the hardest degree there is. My dad had some influence in that as well.”

A need for Pacific lawyers

In 2009, Lagi received an Anglican Church Girls’ Friendly Society scholarship from then social development and employment minister Paula Bennett in recognition of her high achievement and leadership potential against the odds.

She was elected board of trustees pupil representative of her college in 2007/2008. She was a prefect, head of the school council, a Wellington representative rugby player, netball coach, player and umpire.

Several years on Lagi realised there was a greater need by Pacific Island community members for Pacific lawyers. “I thought there was such a shortage.”

“Pacific people were misinformed and didn’t understand the New Zealand system, not because they were ignorant, but because the system wasn’t set up to suit people like them, especially the elderly and teenagers.

“I thought about how unfortunate that was. I thought if I could give my time and serve and help teach people about the law, help explain the law to them, then I had done my job.

“Then I looked at the Pacific Island students following me and I think they need people like me to be an example for them. If there is no one else I may as well step up and try it.

“There aren’t many Pacific lawyers practising in New Zealand. About 40 law graduates in Wellington in group I belong to.”

The first lawyer in her family, Lagi graduated from Victoria University in 2015 with an LLB and a BA majoring in Samoan studies and cultural anthropology. She completed her LLM in 2018.

When she went to university Lagi took her little brother with her – from the time he was a year old. “He has been going to university so for him university is normal, which is what I wanted to do.”

“He is nine now and I have pretty much raised him. Every day he changes his mind about what he wants to be. Every now and then he says he’s going to be a lawyer ‘like my sister’, then next morning he’s going to be a builder. Let him dream, as long as he has options.”

Lagi is currently pursuing her netball hobby as an umpire. “I like to inspire Pacific people and make it a possible option. I run quite a bit and love athletics and sports. I run for Karori Athletics Club and play turbo touch with friends. It’s important to stay healthy.

“I’m also an op-shopper – most of the clothes I own are from op-shops.

“I have really only been to Australia, not much to Samoa. My Dad is a chief so he needs to go to Samoa more regularly and it is expensive. Me and my siblings work to support him with that.

“My goal before I travel the world is to travel New Zealand. I’ve been to Invercargill, Auckland and around Wairarapa. Netball has taken me to many places. I like Makara, which is just down the road.

“I don’t sing, I don’t think I have it, but I have very musical siblings.

“I’m quite old school in my music tastes. I like Westlife, the Backstreet Boys, Whitney Houston, Abba. It’s not complicated music.”

Books as well as clothes at the op shop

“My brother and I are making our way through the Bible - I am Catholic. We are almost at the end of the New Testament. It’s a goal and a commitment I have wanted to make. We have been reading for just over a year.

“I don’t have any specific type of novel I like but when I go op-shopping I pick up the first book that captures my attention. I’m very clichéd but it’s the cover that does it.

“In college I liked British author Malorie Blackman and read her whole Noughts and Crosses series. Now I find the odd book around the house and think I should read this. I’m not committed to one author or genre. I read what captures my attention and draws me in.

“I watch a lot of sport on TV. The family spend a lot of time together in the lounge, we watch a lot of rugby and football. The last movie I saw was the remake of A Star is Born, with Lady GaGa.

“One film I’m looking forward to is a New Zealand made film called Vai, based on seven different Pacific countries and is a story of empowerment through culture, over the lifetime of one woman, Vai. One of the young women in it is a friend of mine.”

Vai, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, has its southern hemisphere premiere at the Māoriland Film Festival in Otaki in March.

“We have no pets at home. I’m petrified of cats but would like dogs and some pigs. I had heaps of pigs in Samoa. We have two puppies in our office.

Photo of Lagi Tuimavave

“I drive a Suzuki Swift automatic and ideally would like to drive a manual.

“I was raised by my great grandparents, and I’d like to see my great grandmothers again over dinner because I spent most of my life with them. I would have all my ancestors who have done well to create the extended family that I have.

“I would love to sit down and get to know them because they have instilled humility and an ethical standard of living in all of us. I would like to say thank you and get to know them more - and have adult conversations. I would love to meet Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, because of the work they have done for communities and society.

“We would have heaps of seafood … crabs, prawns, clams, oysters, and potato salad.

“Being so new in my job you don’t know what you don’t know. I have gone to court and about to ask for something and then find out, luckily after consulting with my other learned friends, that they are things you never ask for because they are rarely or never granted.

“I worked as a court registrar before I became a lawyer, and know how relationships with different stakeholders work. When I made my first appearance in court the judge recognised me, I recognised the judge and he never made me feel like I’m not in my place. I felt settled, calm, and the judge really made me feel I was in the right field.”

Lagi says she has also experienced the value of her Samoan language.

“I have been able to help a number of clients because I speak fluent Samoan. That for me is such an invaluable experience and I am grateful to my parents and my grandparents for encouraging me to maintain my Samoan language.

“I have been able to help people understand the system a little bit better. Every word needs to be explained, you cannot assume they understand anything.

“That’s something I never take for granted because English is my second language. When I first came to New Zealand I was just nodding and pretended I understood everything. I hope I can make something as transparent as possible to people so they can make their decisions.

“Sometimes you need to understand the culture to understand what’s going on, sometimes you don’t understand the cultural context.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would be an international flight attendant or work at a gym. Being a flight attendant would take me round the world and enable me to meet people of different backgrounds.”

Last updated on the 8th March 2019