The walls of Tania Sharkey’s office are bare.
The empty picture hooks and stark white palette are noticeably different to the busy reception area of Friendship Chambers in Manukau.
When I ask about the lack of artwork, save for one out-of-place painting left over from the previous occupant, Ms Sharkey smiles and says: “I like it like that. You should see my house, it’s the same – nothing on the walls.”
The 39-year-old family law practitioner is one of eight barristers in the second storey chambers space. Currently, she is in the midst of organising the inaugural conference for the Pacific Lawyers Association (PLA). Set down for three days, 21-23 November 2019, the allocated theme is ‘It’s Island Time’.
“It’s our first one ever,” Ms Sharkey says.
“We started in 2001, and we’re finally holding a conference. If that’s not the definition of island time, I don’t know what is,” she jokes.
Ms Sharkey, known affectionately as ‘Sharkey’ to friends and colleagues, was elected PLA president in June 2018. Of Tongan and Irish descent, she has worked in South Auckland since 2010 having commenced practice in a central Auckland firm after completing her studies in October 2005. Born and bred in Auckland, Ms Sharkey’s path to a career in law, particularly family law, was laid in her early years.
“My father, a six-foot Irishman, was 33 years older than my mother. When I was seven-years-old, he got really sick,” she says.
“He had a cerebral tumour and was in Mercy Hospital. They let him come home for a bit and my mum looked after him.
“When he was there, we managed to record him just before he passed away. One night he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember thinking at the time – this better be good. And then, I just said, I want to be a lawyer. He chuckled and said: ‘Okay, you do that’.”
Becoming a lawyer
After her father died, Ms Sharkey’s mother worked hard to support the family. Tania and her two older brothers took up part-time jobs at age 14 to help out.
“My mother is where I get my hardworking ethic from. As I often joke fondly, she had a PhD in cleaning. She cleaned the local bowling club, the local church, at Farmers – all to make ends meet. She took so much pride in her cleaning and always told us – over and over again – that no matter what job we had, to always do it well. My brothers and I would go along with her in the early hours of the morning before school and late at night to help her. In the weekends we would go and help Mum pick and pack onions on the farms out in South Auckland – we would go before sunrise and come back when it was starting to get dark and we would only get paid 50 cents a sack.
“These are just some of the things my Mum did for us to get by. My mother made the biggest sacrifice for our family and I would like to pay a huge tribute to her for everything she did.”
Being a lawyer offered secure, decent income and a way to examine some of the issues her own family had grappled with during her upbringing. It was also in keeping with what she had told her father.
She studied law at the University of Auckland and earned her Masters in intellectual property and employment law. While she had plans to “make all the dosh” via commercial work, Ms Sharkey says she discovered family law was what interested her most during her five-year stint at Keil & Associates.
“I think it’s interacting with people. I think there’s a certain level of empathy you need if you’re going to be a pretty good family lawyer. It’s not just saying ‘I’ve been through what you’ve been through’ – because you’d never go that far with clients. But you understand what’s going on. And when you work out here, overcrowding is very different to what overcrowding means on the other side of the Mangere Bridge.”
Knowing how Pacific families and communities work is part of that, she says, when families are torn.
“The majority of Pacific people intend to get back together. It’s usually not about breaking up the family forever, it’s about having a different outlook. They may have come because there’s domestic violence and Oranga Tamariki have said ‘if you don’t go to court, we’re going to take your kids off you’. They want help to change what’s going on in their family ... and any [court] orders have to take into account things like Dad seeing the rest of the family at church on a Sunday.”
In 2010, she joined the now defunct Manukau branch of Brookfields Lawyers and became the regional representative for the New Zealand Law Society’s Family Law Section soon after.
About four years into her time there, it merged into Denham Bramwell, with two of the partners and a few other senior lawyers heading the new firm. Ms Sharkey remained as an associate for another 18 months before stepping out on her own in October 2015.
Reflecting on her progress, Ms Sharkey attributes a lot of help and encouragement from her “buddies” over the years.
“We’ve got an awesome Bar out here. It’s different to many other regions because of the sense of collegiality.”
She credits her good friend Ophir Cassidy, former co-president of Te Hunga Rōia Māori – the Māori Law Society, as a major support person.
“One day she said to me: ‘I’m going to pay for you to go and do your Stepping Up course’, which cost a bloody arm and a leg. ‘I’ll help you get out on your own and I don’t want you to pay me back – just pay it forward one day’. And that was it.
“Now we laugh about why I didn’t do it sooner.”
That sense of collegiality is particularly important for Pacific lawyers, Ms Sharkey says.
“Often, we don’t have the connections that other lawyers do – it’s just the way it is. And if you have a lawyer who has to look after young siblings after work, they’re not going to be able to go to the functions to meet the people they should be meeting.
“In law, that’s how the connections are made and where doors are often opened.”
Changing attitudes in the community
A strong network of Pacific lawyers is about growing “our numbers” as much as it is addressing the challenges which prevent a lot of younger Pacific lawyers progressing to where they want to be in their careers, she says. Figures indicate only about two percent of New Zealand’s 14,000 lawyers are of Pacific descent.
Currently, attracting high school students to consider studying law is a challenge in itself, Ms Sharkey notes.
“Before, it used to be ‘doctor; lawyer; accountant’. Those were the three things your Pacific Island parents wanted. But things are changing, and that’s something I’ve noticed over time.
“Now, you come out of school, pay a few thousand dollars to learn a trade and can start as an electrician at $60,000. That’s fine, but we also need to get out into those high schools and tell kids that law is a real and achievable career path.
“While we might not start on a lot, the salaries do become quite generous, [becoming a lawyer] comes with respect and authority.” We must encourage our Pacific youth to get into law, otherwise, discussions within the legal profession about diversifying the workforce, particularly at the top end, do not really mean much, Ms Sharkey says.
The PLA conference’s ‘It’s Island Time’ theme acknowledges that. Particularly in Auckland where 17% of the population are expected to identify as Pacific in the next 20 years, moving the legal profession to better resemble those statistics is important.
“When I think about my family, and the struggles we went through, I don’t think I’d change a thing because it made me who I am,” she says.
“Saying that, you would never wish it on another person – sometimes we didn’t have any food at all, or I didn’t have the bus fare so couldn’t get to school.
“For the majority of Pacific people, they’ve had that struggle somewhere. Whether it’s your parents or grandparents, it’s part of you. My story is no more profound than anyone else’s, but that background and understanding of how things have gone makes a huge difference with clients, and the work I do.”
Teuila Fuatai firstname.lastname@example.org is an Auckland-based freelance journalist.