New Zealand Law Society - Personal drivers and purpose: Davinnia Tan’s pursuit of the protection of New Zealand’s Taonga

Personal drivers and purpose: Davinnia Tan’s pursuit of the protection of New Zealand’s Taonga

A newly appointed Team Leader (Investigations) at Royal Commission of Inquiry (Abuse in Care), Davinnia Tan shared how she discovered strength and opportunities even in the least expected circumstances.

The benefit of two education systems

Admitted in 2008, Davinnia had wanted to be a lawyer since she was 14. Standing up for what was right and fair came naturally to her from a young age. A day after turning 14, she migrated to New Zealand from Singapore and started boarding school at Nelson College for Girls.

“Having had the opportunity of experiencing two different education systems as a youngster, my school years in New Zealand taught me to think and question, while the education system in Singapore instilled in me a hard-working ethic,” says Davinnia. 

An unconventional start

Following the completion of her Master of Laws at Victoria University of Wellington, Davinnia opted for an unconventional start to her career to gain a bit of perspective. She’d wanted to experience how New Zealand’s parliament functioned behind-the-scenes and took a job as an Executive Assistant to the former National MP Hon Murray McCully (who held the portfolio of foreign affairs and sport and recreation at the time). Her brief time working for a politician not only gave her an understanding of how parliament functioned on a day-to-day basis, but also served as a confirmation that politics may not be where she belongs.

She then began a role with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner as an Investigating officer where she was part of the Assessment and Conciliation Team led by a manager who invested in the development of his people and harnessed a strong collegial team. This marked an important chapter in Davinnia’s career where she started to develop hands-on skills as a lawyer, working directly with complainants and respondents, investigating potential privacy breaches and engaging in dispute resolution. It was in this role that Davinnia successfully facilitated her first mediation, and the first time she felt that sense of purpose serving others as a young lawyer.

Valuable experience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Having written a paper on international trade law as part of her Masters, her desire to contribute to New Zealand’s international trade agenda had soon redirected her to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as an International Trade and Investment Specialist in the Trade Law Unit.

Through her role in assisting the negotiation of several trade and investment agreements, she developed a fascination for international investment law and thoroughly enjoyed the process of developing creative solutions during some tricky negotiations. She was also introduced to the interesting work of the Overseas Investment Office where she would later move into her first formal leadership role after several years.

However, it wasn’t always a linear career path; instead, in between her public service roles she had a stint (too long, she says) as an in-house Legal Counsel for a multinational oil and gas company.

Rest and reset

Practising commercial and corporate law in oil and gas was a turning point in Davinnia’s career where she found herself in a predominantly cheerless environment and was deeply unsatisfied. After almost four years in, she followed her gut, quit, and took six month’s time-out to recalibrate while travelling the world with her partner, now husband. The space provided her the opportunity to reassess her personal drivers, reflect, and dig deeper to work out what ‘meaningful’ meant and what would truly bring her satisfaction and enjoyment.

“Work doesn’t define me. But it shouldn’t drain you of happiness and being yourself. If you feel drained by your work, then something needs to change.

“I learnt the hard way that money and what’s ‘big and sexy’ does not guarantee happiness, nor does it drive me. What’s more important are the people and team I work with, using my skills with genuine purpose to do what I care about; my purpose and not another’s. That is a question I ask myself often to make sure I keep myself honest.”

Mental and physical fitness

Davinnia came back to New Zealand in 2017 and began a new chapter with FairWay Resolution Limited as an Independent Reviewer, appointed under the Accident Compensation Act 2001. She was responsible for reviewing ACC’s decisions, conducting hearings and reviewing evidence in forming legally binding decisions with appeal rights. Whilst this work was rewarding, there were also days where difficult decisions had to be made and she credits a supportive team with a great sense of humour that got her through those days. That same team rallied around her when she was diagnosed with congenital bilateral hip dysplasia and required major surgery.

“I used to think I was pretty resilient but it wasn’t until December 2019 when I required surgery called Periacetabular Osteotomy (PAO), that I needed to keep working on my mental fitness. A PAO is essentially a pelvis reconstruction to treat hip dysplasia and preserving one’s hip joint by fracturing the pelvis in several places and repositioning the hip socket using long screws to hold your bones in place until they fuse,” says Davinnia.

The lengthy rehabilitation was particularly tough for Davinnia who had also been a fitness instructor outside the office, for six years.

Although it was a battle both physically and mentally, the experience unfolded many unexpected revelations that enabled her to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “There is learning in every experience. Facing adversity is a growth opportunity. You can frame a negative experience as something other than ‘negative’, but that requires taking personal responsibility for your circumstances and doing the necessary work. That surgery has given me a new lease of life.”

A reinvigorating move to the Overseas Investment Office

It was a ‘meant to be’ moment when Davinnia saw a job listing for a Senior Solicitor (Enforcement) in Toitū Te Whenua’s (LINZ) Overseas Investment Office. It was the perfect marriage of her prior experience, skills and passion in investment law.

She’s proud to be protecting Aotearoa’s Taonga (property, treasured possession) using her expertise in law. “It’s a privilege for overseas people to invest in New Zealand’s sensitive assets and that’s the purpose of our Overseas Investment Act which informs the nature of the regulatory regime”, says Davinnia.

After almost a year in, she was appointed as the Acting Manager (Residential, Operations & Capability) in July 2021, leading an operational team who assess applications, monitor compliance with consent conditions, respond to general enquiries, and facilitate the workflow of other applications for consent.

“This was my first formal leadership role so my initial challenge was to overcome the Imposter Syndrome and believe in myself that I do have the skills. I just needed to learn to apply them in the right way and accept that I am never going to get it right 100% of the time even with the best of intentions. I was fortunate to have leaders around me who had confidence in me and trusted me with the opportunity.”

For Davinnia, the leap from an operational role to a people leadership position was learning quickly not to “do the doing”. “You need to have confidence in your team to provide you with their advice to help you make decisions as a manager. Where there’s a complex issue, it’s about asking the right questions to help them navigate and problem-solve. Those are always fun.”

She has found working in the overseas investment regulatory space incredibly interesting. “We’re not just a faceless regulator applying a cookie-cutter approach. Particularly when it comes to enforcement, we engage in robust discussions in ensuring outcomes take into account the different features of a case and factors of an investigation. We are regulators who listen, who understand that every situation is different, and each case is assessed on its merits. We relish opportunities to engage with the wider community and help build greater awareness and education of overseas investment issues.”

New appointment at the Royal Commission of Inquiry Abuse in Care

Davinnia has taken up a secondment with the Royal Commission of Inquiry Abuse in Care as a Team Leader (Investigations) in January. “It’s an area of work that speaks to my heart and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a genuine attempt at justice for our people, who are also Taonga of this country.” She is excited to lead a team of talented lawyers and contribute to this nationally significant inquiry.

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