New Zealand Law Society - NZLS Auckland Branch - Interview with Maria Sopoaga

NZLS Auckland Branch - Interview with Maria Sopoaga

Maria Sopoaga is a solicitor at Auckland City Council and Deputy Convenor of the NZLS AYL Committee.

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You are a solicitor at the Auckland City council in the litigation & dispute resolution team. Can you please tell us about your role and if there was any specific reason you decided to work for the Council?

I distinctly remember the mad rush of clerk season in my penultimate year at the University of Auckland. Like many others, I got caught up with the idea that if I ever hoped to have a worthy and successful legal career, I should be applying for clerkships at a top-tier law firms. I had a bit of an ‘aha’ moment when I realised that the only reason I was applying for clerkships was based more in the fact that everyone around me was doing so, and I took the time to reflect on what I really wanted to do coming out of university. A friend of mine had interned in a non-legal role at Council previously and spoke great things about the organisation’s culture. I looked into the legal graduate programme and felt like Council would be the perfect place to build my legal experience while being able to work with both lawyers and other professionals alike.

Council’s legal team is considerably large for an inhouse team with around 60 or so lawyers, legal executives and legal administrators. The graduate programme was a great opportunity to rotate across the four teams – Projects & Transactions (otherwise known as Property & Commercial), Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Regulatory & Enforcement, and Public Law. It was enlightening to work on matters and issue that I could visibly see affect the city we work and live in. At the end of the programme I chose the Litigation & Dispute Resolution team to work permanently in as I loved the variety that civil litigation provides, and the various opportunities to appear in Court were too good to pass up. One of the many positives about working inhouse is that our team do not have billable hours, so all my senior colleagues – most of whom have had extensive private practice experience – are more than happy to take the time to help me through any issues without the time pressure of billing. We also have the great opportunity to work closely with our legal providers panel, who are all more than welcoming and open to our involvement, even for someone at a junior level, like myself.

Have you considered working in private practice and is that something you might do in future?

I have definitely considered working in private practice and do anticipate that it will be part of my future. Law school seems like such a long time when you’re studying; but since I’ve begun practising I’ve realised how long and varied a career can be. I plan out my career in 5-year blocks, and I will likely move into private practice in my next block, to ensure I gain the necessary skills and training that I may need beyond what I learn at Council. At this point, I still have much to learn in my current role, and I want to keep learning and growing my knowledge and skills here at Council before I move on.

What motivated you to study law in the first place, and what is it that you most enjoy about practising it?

Probably like many others who’ve embarked on a law school journey, I was quite an argumentative kid! My mum will tell you I questioned almost everything, and it’s probably why law school seemed like the perfect fit. That, and also because I was a below average science and maths student! I definitely think I grew into my purpose when I was in Law School, learning more about the law, how it can help people, but also how it has hindered people, particularly minorities. In that respect, I guess subconsciously I was and am motivated to study/practice law because it allows me a platform to help others, particularly those who need it.

This might sound ridiculous, but one of the best things about practising law is how vastly different it is to studying it! Of course, you have the basic concepts that every lawyer needs to at least have an idea about, but I’ve found that practising law has made these concepts tangible. Particularly working at Council, I see how my work and the work of my team directly affects Auckland; I’m a much more engaged lawyer than I was a law student!

Practise has also allowed me the opportunity to connect with some amazing people, both within my role at Council but also in the wider legal profession. I’m so grateful to have connected with so many wonderful, like-minded people all making waves in the legal profession and beyond.

Recently, you became a Deputy Convenor for the Auckland Young Lawyers Committee. What does this role involve and what does it mean to you personally?

I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity to be appointed Deputy Convenor of the Auckland Young Lawyers Committee. Alongside our Convenor William Fussey, we are responsible for leading the AYL Committee who organise and establish professional and social events for our young lawyers here in Auckland.

I never undertook any formal executive roles while at University, but this opportunity was something that I saw as a platform to grow the Committee and its strategic objectives to align with the Law Society’s wider objectives to improve legal culture in New Zealand. There are various statistics which show that by 2025, roughly 75% of the global workforce will be millennials and the corporate cultures of most large organisations will be directly shaped by our generation’s habits and expectations. We are already seeing this filter through in things such as flexible working, improved tech and innovation, prioritisation of work-life balance and the increased importance of mental health and wellbeing. Young people in all walks of life are stepping up and using their voices to tackle the world’s issues, and I’m strongly of the opinion that if we want to make real steps towards improving our profession, we need to be hearing from the voices of those who will ultimately carry the profession into the future.

Is there a specific reason you decided to be on the AYL Committee and what, in particular, are you hoping to achieve while on the Committee?

One of the most important drivers for me coming onto the Committee was the lack of diversity – which regardless of what ever Diversity & Inclusion teams or departments organisations might have, is still an obvious issue. As a profession, we need to be more representative of the people that we serve, and the same standard should apply to the AYL Committee. Being only one of 3 Pacific lawyers who have been a part of AYL, I’d really like to push for even more diversity with more Maori and Pacific representation on our committee. Prior to my and my fellow member Wilber Tupua’s involvement, there has only been one Pacific lawyer on the AYL Committee, Charlie Piho. Charlie was a Committee member from 2015-2018, was the co-founder of AUT’s Maori and Pacific Law Students’ Association, a past president of the Pacific Lawyers Association and last year’s winner of the Pegasus Scholarship.

I’d also like to acknowledge the efforts of Victoria Skelton, a previous member from 2017-2018, and still the only Maori lawyer to have been a part of the AYL Committee.  We need to be pushing for even more Maori representation on our Committee to truly reflect and honour our renewed commitment to a more inclusive and diverse profession. If we do not make conscious efforts to improve this, then our profession will continue to ostracise those who are different, and ‘diversity’ will simply be a PR buzzword without any meaningful change occurring.

You received the Centre for Legal Innovation’s Young Legalpreneurs Scholarship for New Zealand.  Please explain what this scholarship is, and also what it enables you to do?

The Centre for Legal Innovation’s Young Legalpreneurs Scholarship was established this year to identify, support and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of early career lawyers. Like I mentioned above, the legal profession is rapidly changing, and one of the most obvious changes is in the legal technology and legal innovation space. The way we think about our thinking, our processes, the way we work is already changing, and the CLI’s innovation-focussed think tank is purposed with preparing us for the changes that are already on their way.

As part of the scholarship I regularly connect with the scholars from Australia, other innovation-minded young lawyers who have some awesome ideas around how our profession can adapt and evolve with the technological advances happening around the world. We are also the inaugural founders and leaders of the Young Legalpreneur’s Special Interest Group, which focusses on building a learning community for like-minded legal tech and innovation focussed early-career lawyers.

The Scholarship connected me with my New Zealand mentor, Gene Turner, founder of LawHawk, a document automation service that changes the way legal work is done. He has been instrumental in connecting me with other innovation-focussed leaders and opportunities to expand my knowledge in the legal tech space.

One of my passions is around changing the old, rigid legal corporate culture that believe that there is only way to think and succeed. This goes hand in hand with legal innovation, because to be open to innovation is to be open to different ways of thinking, different people who provide different perspectives.

Can you tell us about your professional and personal role models?

It’s probably no secret that my professional role model is Tiana Epati, the current President of the New Zealand Law Society. Her mentorship has been absolutely invaluable, and being able to confide in another lawyer who’s story I can identify with has been an absolute joy. Because of Tiana, I see the next generation of brown women lawyers, who in her, have finally seen the heights they can reach, where before they never could.

Personally, I will always give thanks to the two strongest women I know – my mum and my nana. They taught me to be steadfast, proud of who I am, kind to others, and giving to those who go without. They really are the giants on who’s shoulders I stand, and I wouldn’t be half the woman I am without the sacrifices they have made.

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