In April this year Sharnika Leleni received one of two new scholarships created by the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand (AMINZ) to help grow diversity and leadership in Aotearoa’s dispute resolution sector. Sharnika was awarded the Determinative scholarship, which is focussed on arbitration.
The scholarships were set up to encourage young professionals to engage with dispute resolution, provide leadership development opportunities and encourage diversity. The learning will flow in both directions, as Sharnika will report to the AMINZ Council on opportunities on how they could enhance their diversity and inclusivity within the Institute and in alternative dispute resolution generally. Sharnika said that one of the greatest opportunities the scholarship provided her was the mentorship of Paul Heath QC. She says it is a great privilege to be able to converse with one of the greatest legal minds in the country and is grateful for his support and encouragement.
From a bicultural family (Pākehā/Niuean), Sharnika says that she feels she can bring a different lens to situations, and she’s inspired by the changes that she is starting to see in the legal profession. She hopes that she will be able to promote arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism which is flexible and can therefore allow for the incorporation of different cultural practices and values. Not having to follow the High Court rules also helps smooth the way, she says.
Sharnika presented at the AMINZ 2021 Conference on the use of arbitral secretaries as a means of developing diversity in arbitration as well as and the controversies surrounding the scope of the role. An arbitral secretary is an established, optional role in Arbitration. Similar to a judge's clerk, an arbitral secretary provides assistance to an arbitrator / arbitral tribunal, carrying out administrative tasks, legal research and drafting of arbitral awards. Sharnika encouraged arbitrators to engage arbitral secretaries who have five or less years of experience in the legal industry. She says “this would be an invaluable training tool and would also encourage young lawyers to get involved with arbitration at an earlier age which would hopefully result in more diversity in arbitral appointments in the future. Currently, there are few women arbitrators, let alone arbitrators who are ethnically diverse. With the legal profession focussing on access to justice, I believe alternative dispute resolution should be encouraged, and alternative dispute resolution bodies should embrace tools which allow for increased diversity.”
A member of Russell McVeagh’s litigation team, Sharnika is also a co-lead of the Ethnicity sub-group, which is part of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. She has been working at Russell McVeagh for two years. “We’re really trying to implement long-term change within the firm from a diversity perspective". She sees the AMINZ scholarship as a great opportunity to branch out and expand on the work that she has been doing within Russell McVeagh to improve understanding of different minority cultures and contribute to building a legal profession that is more reflective of New Zealand society.
Sharnika says that she is proud of her heritage, and that she has been inspired by current Law Society President Tiana Epati, who is the first President of Pasifika descent. Sharnika says that there is a tension that can come with walking in two worlds, a feeling that because you are bi-cultural you don’t fit into one group or the other.
Sharnika represented her secondary school in Touch Rugby and Netball at regional and national level, and was a competitive dancer for eight years, however, as getting top grades became her focus at University, she says she started experiencing anxiety and imposter syndrome. “It’s very easy to doubt yourself and think that something is going to go wrong. I still need to tell myself most days that I worked hard to get here and there will always be someone who is willing to help. It’s just about having that confidence in yourself. It’s so much easier said than done though!”
Sharnika says that it was only when she was older that she deeply reflected on the different upbringings of her parents. Her grandfather migrated to New Zealand from Niue and his hope was that his children would attend University. Sharnika’s father is one of four children and grew up in Porirua, he lost his own father (Sharnika’s grandfather) in a car accident when he was only 10. He has been in the police force for over 35 years and her mother is a teacher by trade. Sharnika is very pleased she was able to go to University and graduate with a Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Laws (Hons). She says, even though she never met her grandfather, she hopes he would be proud of this achievement.