New Zealand Law Society - Determination rewards lawyer who rejected rejection

Determination rewards lawyer who rejected rejection

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Natalie Coates
Natalie Coates

Sick of getting job rejections in London, Natalie Coates took her legal talents – and two first class honours degrees - to Harvard University, where she secured her LLM.

With no callbacks even for waitressing, as well as legal jobs, she put herself in a position where she felt no-one would say ‘no’ to her – winning acceptance at five distinguished US law schools.

After several years teaching law, she joined Rotorua-based Kahui Legal, where she recently was made partner.

Natalie Ramarihia (Natalie) Coates
Hamilton, and quickly moved to Kawerau.
Entry to law
Graduated BA (Hons) and LLB (Hons) from Otago University in 2009 and LLM from Harvard University. Admitted in 2014.
Partner at Kahui Legal Rotorura, based in Whakatane.
Specialist area
Treaty of Waitangi, Māori land law and trusts, indigenous rights.

Before joining Kahui Legal, Whakatane-based Natalie was a lecturer at Auckland University Faculty of Law, where she taught papers on the Treaty of Waitangi, jurisprudence, tikanga and the law, legal ethics and law and society.

“I chose to study at Otago University because I came from small town Te Teko [near Kawerau]– and Auckland seemed too big.

“Two people I knew went to Otago and they said it was a great small town university and had a really good reputation for law. Part of it was wanting to get away from home, but the flights turned out to be expensive,” says Natalie who affiliates to Ngati Awa, Ngati Hine, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Tuhourangi, Tuhoe, and Te Whanau a Apanui.

She graduated in 2009 and decided to go down the academic track, teaching for five years, studying for her LLM at Harvard University and travelling before being admitted in 2014.

“My Dad Willie was a mill worker in Kawerau and met my Mum Christine at school.

“Dad was a good rugby player and was supposed to play in the 1981 game at Hamilton against the Springboks, he was supposed to be hooker in that game [the one in which anti-apartheid protestors invaded Rugby Park forcing the abandonment of South Africa v Waikato.]Mum trialled for the Silver Ferns - they were both really good sports players.

“When I was born they decided they wanted to raise us around family so we moved back to Kawerau from Hamilton. I’m the oldest of three.

“My brother Hemi Coates is an entrepreneur in Taranaki with his wife, and both have teaching backgrounds. My sister Julia works at Te Puna Ora o Mataatua charitable trust – in a whanau ora approach to Māori healthcare services.”

An uncle, David Bates, is a lawyer in Tauranga.

Natalie’s wife is Labour list MP, commercial lawyer and business consultant Kiri Allan. They have a two-year-old girl, Hiwa-i-te-rangi Allan-Coates.

“I did have hobbies before becoming a mother, but as a partner in a law firm, a part-time lecturer and a mum, there’s really not much time left over. Any time I do have I now have a fondness for parks and pools.

“I used to be good in sports. I have tried the Napier-based Iron Māori half marathon most years. Our firm sponsors it. I finish it, but last time was only just. I remember going around and my partner was running with me - I turned to her and said I think my bodily organs are shutting down.”

At school she played football, netball, basketball and volleyball. She was also a swimmer and a surf lifesaver. “I was asked to trial for New Zealand secondary schools’ football team but the trial conflicted with exams and I chose to go to exams and I always have regrets at not going.

“Most of my community interests have been iwi-related. I have been an unpaid associate director on Ngati Awa’s holding company and I have also gone onto the council of Māori tertiary organisation Awanuiarangi. I want to do things for our iwi where possible.”

Hospitals a no-no

At school Natalie says she was what would be described as “a classic jack of all trades”.

“My subjects were maths, English, science, PE, and photography. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

“Mum paid for me to see a guidance counsellor who did all these tests to see what I might be good at. She said go and be a doctor at Auckland.

“As I was driving home from that I realised I hated hospitals, so I decided to do law.

“There were heaps of things tied up in that. I don’t think I realised until after what the law was about. I went to a Māori kura kaupapa – the lowest decile school you can get, so I think as part of that you see things playing out in pretty bad ways and I saw the law as being something I wanted to be able to understand.

“In my own family, Dad has six brothers and my father is the only one who can speak Te Reo fluently. If you look at that, for his parents that’s their first language.

“All of that is tied up in some of those big policy legal decisions in terms of the impact of language loss within a family. And that’s a product of law.

Natalie Coates
Natalie Coates Family

“I think I was unconsciously looking for answers to that sort of stuff. There was always an underlying desire – not that specific – to do work within the legal sphere to advance Māori interests, just because of the state that we are in. Less iwi-specific - broader than that.”

Straight after law school, Natalie summer clerked at some of the big law firms but decided, based on her experiences there, that she didn’t see herself as a lawyer. “Not initially, this was not the right place for me.”

“I went and travelled overseas in 2009, and went to London. I thought I was neat because I had two first class honours degree, I’m smart and I’m going to waltz into a job over there.

[Natalie, left with wife Kiri Allan and their daughter Hiwa-i-te-rangi]

“I got there during a recession. I experienced for the first time mass rejection and not being able to get a job that I wanted. I was not even getting callbacks for waitressing jobs - let alone legal jobs.

“I got a very small insight into what it was like, and how hopeless you can actually be in that situation where you are trying and you are getting rejected. And how self-defeating that can be and how uninspiring and difficult that situation is.

Harvard and a Fulbright Scholarship

“There came a point when I was there when I said ‘bugger this I’m going to put myself into a position where people are not going to say no to me’.

“I got a Fulbright Scholarship and applied to five US law schools, including Harvard, and got accepted for all of them.

“It was hard to pick which one - I had different levels of scholarship. Harvard is a very good generalist school and have done an awesome marketing job in terms of promoting themselves as one of the best law schools in the world.

“But it was a hard decision because some other law schools had specialist areas that I was particularly interested in such as indigenous rights, which Harvard don’t do. In the end I could not turn Harvard down.

“I did more broader rights-based stuff and focused on jurisprudence, understanding the nature of laws, and did my specialist paper on a Māori rights recognition issue. I tended to take a bunch of the good professors’ courses.

“I was part of a clinic looking at ways of offering legal education by getting people to work on practical projects. One of the things we did was go to Thailand and interview Burmese refugees on why they had fled Burma, with a view to working on and promoting those issues.

“Because I didn’t originally want to be a lawyer, that was one of the reasons I went to Harvard.

“The beauty about lecturing and teaching is you have got the freedom to think about whatever you want to think about and get paid to intellectually wrestle with those big issues. I also loved the idea of teaching, and helping to shape and mould those next generation minds.

“After two years of that - and I loved it - I felt the need, particularly because I was teaching papers on the Treaty of Waitangi, to do work that was effecting people directly in a positive way and backup the stuff I was talking about. And to understand some of the in-practice nuances that I think was missing.”

That was when she joined Kahui Legal. But before going to London and Harvard, Natalie worked with Annette Sykes and Miharo Armstrong, before he was appointed a judge of the Māori Land Court in 2014. “They are at the cutting edge of Māori legal development.”

Vinyl records  

“When I was younger and because we couldn’t afford a piano, my Mum bought an organ. I very coolly played the organ and the flute. I played for a very brief period in the school orchestra but it was very uncool.

“I don’t listen to much music, but love American singer Lauryn Hill and 1990s and 2000s rhythm and blues bands. I have a record player - you can’t beat vinyl. We have all the old Stevie Wonder hits I grew up to. You can’t beat what your parents listened to.

“I like Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shapeshifter, and Whakatane band Kora.

“I like reading and love a good escape book. We have a huge bookcase but I’m struggling with titles. When I was young I loved The Power Of One, The Colour Purple, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Last of the Mohicans.

“We don’t get to the movies very often, but love the odd Netflix binge. Silk is an amazing legal series. I’m into some crime series, such as Ava de Vernay’s When They See Us, about the Central Park 5, who were wrongfully accused and imprisoned of assault and rape.

“We have no pets. We had a dog called Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after the US judge. But she died when my Dad let her out for a pee early in the morning. Then with our lifestyle we decided we couldn’t manage a pet.

“When I finished university I did a bit of travelling. I’ve spent time in Europe and was in Mexico for my 30th birthday. I spent a bit of time in south-east Asia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and would love to go to South America.”

Natalie is finishing her part-time university work at end of this year, when she will be in full-time legal practice. “I will always keep a hand in academia but in less of a formal role.”

She drives a seven-seater Mitsubishi Outlander. “A mum truck to chuck everything in.”

“For dinner guests I can’t go beyond my grandfather Wharekaihua Coates, who passed away when I was 16. I would love to pick his brain now that I am an adult. I would definitely have dinner with him again.

“My second choice would be Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki - the Māori prophet and leader that founded the Ringatū religion. He was a revolutionary and rebel and would make for very interesting company.

“I also wouldn’t mind sitting round the table with Michelle Obama. She is awesome in how she manages her life.

“I am a cook out of necessity, not choice, but can make a good roast. I like a good gin and tonic. We get Tanqueray because it is a general okay one.

“For holidays we always try to go up the East Coast to Te Kaha, it is so beautiful and isolated. No reception, no work emails.

“A random escape spot we discovered is Turangi. Great hot pools, close to the mountain and everything thing else you need.”

‘Arguing about issues that will hopefully help shape jurisprudence in NZ’

A few weeks ago she happened on a moment she will long remember. “We were in the Court of Appeal. It was memorable for me and my colleague Horiana Irwin - another Harvard LLM - who founded Whaia Legal in 2018, and who used to work at Kahui Legal.

“We both had a chance to address the court. One on a tikanga issue, one on a Treaty issue. It felt amazing.

“Two wahine Māori, both speaking in Te Reo and both arguing or speaking to issues that we were really passionate about. It was my first appearance in the Court of Appeal. We get the result before Christmas so we’ll see if we were any good.

“We did the introductions and framing of our cases in Te Reo and did translations immediately for the judges. It felt significant that we were able to do that and the judges seemed receptive and welcoming to that. We were arguing about issues that will hopefully help shape jurisprudence in New Zealand.

“I have no ambitions in terms of positioning. I want to build on my skills to become the best lawyer I can.

“My ultimate ambition is to help built up the jurisprudence in relation to tikanga and the Treaty and help move the needle in respect of those things. In a way that is already happening and I want to contribute to that development in a meaningful way.

“I have sometimes thought that, given I am a conflict-avoiding person, whether medicine would have been a better path, in terms of being able to help people without the layers of human complexity that the law throws up at you.

“The other path I contemplated when I was 17, but Dad said don’t do it, was to be a PE teacher. I love physical sport and physical activity, and I love the academics behind it too.”

Long-time journalist Jock Anderson is always on the hunt for practitioners with an interesting background for this regular feature. If you feel you would be worthy of inclusion or know of someone who would make an ideal participant, contact Jock at

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