Hereina Vaai is a busy person. She is a Public Defence Service lawyer, and a television journalist.
Better known as Reina, being on the move is a lifestyle she enjoys. To Reina it is not tiring being constantly busy, it actually energises and encourages her to do more.
Like some other lawyers, the profession wasn’t top of her career list. She was admitted at the age of 28 in 2015 after studying at Auckland University.
“I didn’t actually want to study or practise law. I wanted to write and to do something creative. During my final year at high school I was awarded a university scholarship but it didn’t have a journalism or communications programme at the time. It was suggested that I study law because of this and I kind of just stumbled my way through, then eventually started work as a solicitor at Moala Merrick in Manukau,” she says.
The firm was on the hunt for a junior lawyer and Miss Vaai says she knew of the reputation of Chris Merrick and now District Court Judge Soana Moala who were the law firm’s partners.
“I applied and it was actually the worst interview I’d ever been through. They asked me what my weaknesses were and I answered that I was probably not the right person for the job. I’d already accepted during the interview that I wasn’t going to get the job and began asking them for tips so that I would do better in the next job interview,” she says.
While Miss Vaai appeared to be telling her prospective employers several reasons why they should not employ her, even to the point of saying the other applicants were more suitably qualified, that tactic turned what felt like the interview from hell into gold.
“They called me and said they loved how honest I was and offered me the job, and that’s how I got into practising law.”
The Public Defence Service work
Reina Vaai is from South Auckland and works for the PDS in Manukau.
“I recognise a lot of the people I represent in court. We grew up in a similar environment. I was fortunate to have received an education and have a family that encouraged me to pursue further education because that was the only way to get out of this sort of cycle or environment,” she says.
For Miss Vaai, working in criminal law is a privilege because she gets to help people who are often desperate for assistance.
“They’re not all nice but I do feel a sense of duty especially when I see family members of people sitting in the back of the court room with children of someone I am representing. That could have been me, but I’m standing at the opposite end. I think crime is a product of a lot of things, not just personal choice. I grew up in a good family but I did live in both Mangere and Manurewa. I went to a decile one primary school where a lot of my friends' older siblings were in prison.”
Feelings of resentment because of her background
It’s not uncommon for Reina to be treated as though she doesn’t know what she is talking about. She sometimes feels like she is viewed as young, Samoan and incapable.
“They’ll ask where a real lawyer is. All of our clients are from low socio-economic backgrounds so there is a lot of desperation. We get threats, including death threats, if I’m not able to get a good result for someone. There was one time when a lady told me she would stab me, once she is released from prison,” she says.
For most people these sorts of threats would be enough to tempt them into looking for less intimidating work, but Miss Vaai says she and her colleagues have proven coping strategies.
“We have a really good team and when we get back to the office, we all vent to each other. Counselling is also available and there is really good security at court.
“We also laugh. You have to have a dark sense of humour to do this sort of work. It’s essential and often people that work in the courtroom environment use humour to cope.”
It’s not uncommon to meet a lawyer who is also a writer or journalist. Often these skills merge seamlessly. The connection is perhaps in the story telling, in court and on camera.
Reina Vaai also works as a television journalist for Tagata Pasifika, a Pacific news show on TVNZ.
She almost gave up law for journalism but reached a flexible arrangement with her employer at the Public Defence Service.
“I was close to resigning at the end of 2016 but my manager offered me the chance to continue part-time. My manager didn’t want to see me stop practising law but also not miss out on journalism. We still have this flexible arrangement and it works well,” she says.
Miss Vaai is currently working on a documentary about the long-time captain of the Black Ferns, Detective Constable Fiao’o Fa’amausili.
Despite some of the hostile attitude she has to endure from some of her clients, Miss Vaai says there’s plenty of reasons to keep representing people with legal problems.
“As a Samoan, fighting for another young Samoan who has made a stupid mistake and helping this person to avoid prison time and turn their life around is very satisfying. For some people this would be difficult to relate to but it’s one of the main reasons I like this work and continue doing it. These moments make up for all of the threats and intimidation we get.”
If you thought her court work environment sounded tough enough, then consider the casual racism or unconscious bias that Miss Vaai has also had to tolerate.
“I remember a particular time that I was walking down the hallway of court. I was carrying a jury trial gown because I was junior to my manager. One of the court staff stopped me and told me that I could not go where I was going. I was told ‘jurors had to go over there’. I explained that I was not a juror and then she asked me if I was appearing as a defendant. That was during my first year of practice. I’d also get asked if I was an interpreter,” she says.
Miss Vaai wondered if it was just her that was going through this but that wasn't the case.
“One of my Samoan male colleagues told me that when he was sitting in the back of a courtroom observing, another lawyer approached him and said ‘court has closed now, your matter will be called afterwards’. He was wearing a suit and had his briefcase and was treated like that. He told this person that he worked for the PDS. It’s as if our suits, our gowns, our briefcases, the things that make us lawyers are easy to ignore when we look like the people who are appearing in the dock.”
Miss Vaai says in the beginning it did annoy her having to explain or defend her right to be there, particularly when lawyers who were not from the Pacific Islands didn’t have to.
“I quickly realised that the most effective way of dealing with these biases is to explain or talk about it. People see the colour and don’t think that there is a lot of diversity in the law profession, but there is,” she says.