Pathways in the Law: Prestige Lawyers
Cross cultural and bilingual legal expertise
Prestige Lawyers in the heart of Auckland is an international law firm that’s been operating since 2008.
The firm was conceived by director and principal Royal Reed.
The legal team deal mainly with Chinese-speaking communities, but not all of their lawyers are native Chinese.
They’re an ethnically diverse team coming from different corners of the world, creating a consolidated legal approach to the many issues they deal with in key areas such as immigration and investment.
Roshni Kaur is of Malaysian and Indian descent. She is an Associate in the litigation team who studied and gained her law degree at the University of Otago.
She was admitted in 2011 and started her career working as a junior barrister at Southern Cross Chambers in Auckland.
“The Chambers taught me everything there is to know about the basics of litigation and after about two years with the Chambers, I then started studying my Masters, studying full-time for a year at first. I’ve been with Prestige Lawyers for about two years now, and I’m still finishing my Masters part-time,” she says.
Miss Kaur has one paper left to complete which she says makes work/life challenging.
“It is full on. I’m waiting to do it at a time when my court schedule isn’t too hectic. Royal Reed is very supportive of everyone’s individual needs here as long as there is a strong work ethic, whether it’s educational, personal or family. There’s always a way to work around it because she is such a family-orientated person.”
A vibrant culture
And while it may appear as if Miss Kaur landed the perfect job, she says getting a job in a good law firm that breathes flexibility is not easy.
“Coming from an Asian background as I have. There is such a massive pool of candidates to pick from. I remember being specifically told by a potential employer … ‘you may not fit in within the personality of the firm’. That’s the kind of thing that occurred when I first started out as a junior lawyer,” she says.
Roshni Kaur does not speak Chinese but that’s okay because Prestige Lawyers has a pool of legal assistants, in-house translators, and Chinese law graduates in their litigation team who can assist.
And Miss Kaur’s background does provide her with the benefit of understanding the firm’s Asian clients, and how they do business and conduct themselves when meeting during those crucial first introductions.
“The Chinese culture is similar to what I grew up with but we are also provided with education on how Chinese people prefer various aspects of business to be managed,” she says.
Miss Kaur is no stranger to the theatre of court where she represents mostly Chinese clients.
“I do family, civil, commercial and some employment law. Mediations, some negotiation work too but generally I’ll be in court almost every week,” she says.
“It’s a very nice title (Associate). I had a fair bit of junior barrister experience before I came here and it was very hands-on straight away. I’ve been exposed to a lot of challenges and opportunity. I’m also in the position where I get to teach and supervise junior lawyers,” she says.
Joseph McMullin is a foreign qualified lawyer. He hails from Seattle in the United States and his background is as diverse as the culture that percolates Prestige Lawyers.
He studied at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and he and his family have lived in Auckland for three years.
Mr McMullin used to work for a large US law firm in Hong Kong. His wife is a professor in Asian history, specifically Chinese, and it was her job opportunity in Auckland that brought the family to New Zealand.
“We got on a plane without having ever visited the country, along with our four children. It’s a different lifestyle to what we were used to, the kids are either in bare feet or gumboots, and are always climbing trees, we love it,” he says.
That’s a far cry from life in Hong Kong where school had a cement enclosure for children to play in.
After graduating in 2010, he spent a gap year and was in China with his wife while she was doing research for her PhD qualification.
The days of the ‘Death Star’
The first law firm he worked for upon graduation was Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. It would eventually lead to working for that same firm in Hong Kong.
“It was one of the top law firms in the US, and had the nickname of ‘The Death Star’. It was intense but very good training. I was a junior lawyer working mostly with bankruptcy cases,” he says.
One of the more memorable cases was the bankruptcy of the Tomato King of California.
“He was kind of a play boy, go-kart racing, womanising guy who basically drove his company into the ground. We were representing him. He was convicted of selling tomatoes that were not organic despite branding them as being organic,” he says.
Joseph McMullin speaks fluent Chinese Mandarin, a language he learned before becoming a lawyer. “I studied Mandarin at university and spent two years in Taiwan as a Mormon Missionary, so every day I was thrown out on to the street to talk to people.”
Being a foreign qualified lawyer a good skill fit
Using his Chinese language skills motivated Mr McMullin to seek work at Prestige Lawyers.
“Prestige Lawyers offered something a little different. I also had this idea of it being a relaxed boutique firm after the Hong Kong and US experiences, however it’s turned out to be absolutely full-on and just as intense as those previous firms I worked for,” he says.
Mr McMullin says this is because they’re dealing with people’s lives such as immigration and family cases.
“In big firms, you’re in these huge teams and literally you could spend a whole day just reading a hundred-page document and fixing commas and other typos and being paid $500 an hour,” he says.
The work at Prestige Lawyers is much more satisfying. “We’re dealing with people who may be facing deportation within a month. It’s very urgent work,” he says.
A large proportion of Mr McMullin’s work is in dealing with complex immigration issues.
“I had this case recently involving this Kiwi guy who was 80-years old and had married a Chinese lady who was about 60. He didn’t speak a word of Chinese, and she was the same with English. They were quickly married and, on the surface, it looked like a fraudulent case where perhaps they married to get immigration benefits,” he says.
Mr McMullin says Immigration New Zealand would not grant the woman residence as they believed the marriage was a sham.
“So we drove down to their house and visited them to get the full picture. We took pictures and spoke with them and you could see by the way they lived their lives that they were legitimate. We interviewed the minister of their local chapel, spoke with their neighbours, we interviewed all of these people to build our case. It was a completely different story with them both being grandparents to each other’s grandchildren, not a fake paper marriage and it was a matter of painting that picture to Immigration,” he says.
The legal team had just two weeks to do this. “It was intense while we got all of the submissions together. It was surreal, love letters were becoming legal evidence,” he says.
The case went down to the wire with an emergency application made to the Immigration Minister.
“Within two weeks, we received a reply that granted our client a one-year work visa. That’ll buy her time to apply for residency again,” he says.
It’s perhaps that human element of the work that drives him to strive harder than perhaps if he was doing mostly corporate work for a gigantic white collar law firm.
“Cases feel personal, and if you get a decision that doesn’t go your client’s way, it can be tough to swallow,” he says.
Language skills a great party trick
He says it’s always a great party trick walking into a meeting speaking fluent Chinese. Mr McMullin says there have been occasions when he has been called into a meeting with Chinese nationals to assist and they’ve reacted with disbelief at his bilingual ability.
“It’s an odd one in that if an Asian person such as my wife who grew up in California speaks fluent Mandarin, there’s little reaction by a white person. We wouldn’t react that way to a Chinese person speaking perfect English, would we?” he says.
Joseph McMullin is also doing further study at the University of Auckland where he takes one class a week so to transfer his American legal skills into the New Zealand equivalent.
“I have to do exams in four subjects, kind of like a bar exam. So at the moment I get to do all the footwork of a New Zealand lawyer but I won’t be able to practise officially as a lawyer in this country until the end of the year,” he says.
He says the firm’s Principal Royal Reed has been incredibly supportive.
“She grows people organically. It’s a really great environment. I think sometimes people have this impression that small law firms are some sort of country club where lawyers that couldn’t make it in the big firms go to. That’s so not the case.”
Who is Royal Reed?
Royal Reed has been practising law since 2001, gaining her law degree at the University of Auckland in 2000.
She is an expert in New Zealand immigration law and cross-cultural dispute resolution, having worked on over 5,000 immigration cases.
Mrs Reed is originally from Taiwan and married her New Zealand husband after graduating from university. In 2001, she gained a summer clerkship in Australia at a firm with a Shanghai branch.
A year later she was working as an in-house lawyer with an immigration consulting firm in Ponsonby, Auckland that had a large client base from Taiwan.
From there she went on to work for a law firm in Hamilton in 2004 because, she says, no-one was serving the Chinese market there. By 2006 she had started her own practice in the city, Royal Reed & Associates.
“I wanted to get a deeper understanding of how to treat Chinese clients. I could’ve just treated them as normal and try to ignore their little differences, or I could take a different approach and look after them in a culturally sensitive way to suit their needs and get more out of that relationship,” she says.
Paving the path to Auckland’s Prestige Lawyers
After testing the waters in Hamilton and identifying a solid base of Chinese clients, Royal Reed had an established law firm and a growing reputation.
“I started with two clients that were referred to me by other law firms. I still remember them in those early days. I also wrote to some of the Chinese businesses and asked them what they’d want to ask me if they had legal questions,” she says.
She was inundated with replies along with Chinese New Year messages.
“Many of them were unaware of their legal rights when some sort of grievance had occurred, a contract dispute or a business problem. So I decided to give them a little bit of legal 101,” she says.
She drafted that in Chinese into a booklet and offered it to prospective clients. The response led to being invited to speak to groups.
“At one stage I was speaking to about 80 different Chinese organisations such as women’s groups, parents groups, church groups, Buddhist groups. I would talk about wills or what happens when you get into a traffic incident.”
Mrs Reed took things further by speaking for an hour once a week on a Chinese language radio programme about legal issues. She has also featured on television programmes and is accessible online through a series on YouTube and its Chinese equivalent Youku.
The firm grew by doing a lot of dispute resolution work and it became a trusted brand by Chinese communities.
“Chinese people are slow to bring this sort of work to lawyers because it can be very embarrassing to talk about. It’s very difficult for Chinese people to accept they might have failed in, perhaps, a business arrangement. It’s not something they would openly talk about with a lawyer,” she says.
Finding the right lawyers
In 2008, Royal Reed & Associates became Prestige Lawyers, when Mrs Reed moved the firm from Hamilton to Auckland.
She says she struggled for some years to get the right people who would fit into her team of lawyers and the culture it embodied.
“In New Zealand, good lawyers want to work in famous places and we didn’t start out as a famous firm. We were also not big enough to run a clerkship campaign,” she says.
What Royal Reed did was innovative and smart.
“We approached law schools and told them we were looking for students with some interest in China, the language and culture. So we opened it up to people who were studying Asian languages as well as law, or who may have travelled to China through a scholarship,” she says.
This approach attracted second and third year law students of which some were employed as paid legal assistants, doing file management, research and generally supporting a lawyer.
“So we gave them the flavour of what it is like to work with cross-border disputes, international divorce, and the private fallout of very rich people. Sometimes it can completely change a student’s outlook on what they want to study such as choosing a conflict of law paper over a commercial paper,” she says.
Royal Reed says 80% of her current staff were students who started as paid legal assistants.
“We support them. Some of them aren’t Chinese, they just have a great way with languages. So we send them to Shanghai to meet international clients. These are not fish’n’chip or Laundromat Chinese people they meet,” she says.
But rich clients is not the point of the practice or what Prestige Lawyers uses to attract staff.
“The point of the practice is to be able to articulate very efficient solutions to unusual legal issues that mainstream New Zealanders don’t have to bother with. Chinese people park their money internationally, so how do you deal with a family fallout or estate dispute. The legal issues are very detailed.”
Last year the Prestige Lawyers team flew to Shanghai to meet Chinese clients and the New Zealand companies that have been clients of the firm. The team has also travelled to Taipei.
“There are often other overseas trips where we will send a young law clerk that we’d like to keep to give them a feel for how work as a lawyer will be if they stay with us,” she says.
Last updated on the 5th May 2017