New Zealand Law Society - What Confucius and Brad Pitt mean to bench-pressing barrister

What Confucius and Brad Pitt mean to bench-pressing barrister

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Roanna Chan with her daughter
Roanna Chan with her daughter

After 25 years at Crown Law, five years handling industrial relations at the Education Ministry, and a few “false starts”, Roanna Chan achieved her goal of going to the independent Bar.

“I had been wanting to go out on my own for a while,” says Roanna, who recently joined Barristers.Comm Chambers in Wellington, where she specialises in employment law, public administrative law and general civil litigation.

After leaving Crown Law in 2013, the year her sister Deborah - a legal recruitment specialist - died, Roanna intended going to the Bar after taking a break. She took a trip to Hong Kong to see an aunt and on her return stepped into an opportunity with the Ministry of Education as an acting senior employment lawyer.

Roanna Belle (Roanna) Chan
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Victoria University. Admitted in 1988.
Barrister and Barristers.Comm, Wellington.
Speciality area
Employment law, public, administrative, general civil litigation

“I stayed there about five months, and planned to go to the Bar then, but another opportunity arose and I was appointed principal adviser on legal and special projects in the ministry’s industrial relations unit. I was involved in a lot of collective bargaining – an interesting role – and stayed there about five years.”

Her mother, Diana, was very ill so Roanna – realising she could always get work but wanting to spend more time with her parents - resigned from the ministry to spend spring and summer with them.

When her mother died after a sudden stroke she took time off to spend with her Dad, Young, who recently turned 97. “Longevity runs in my Dad’s family - his sister died last year at 101.

“Sadly, a lot of people, friends and family died in the last 18 months, so I took a year off, got a whole lot of stuff done around my house and went to university to study Mandarin, which I have been wanting to do forever.

“When my mother – who was born in Shanghai - came to New Zealand in 1956, she was quite well educated and could speak Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, and English. She was offered a scholarship to the University of Texas. I’m pleased she didn’t take it up otherwise I probably would never have been born.

“She came from a well-off family, but things changed. When she came to New Zealand she was helping my Dad in his fruit shop business in Newtown and she was one of the first in her group of friends to go out to work.

“She wanted to do something on her own, so went to work at New Zealand Post and over the years became a supervisor in Wellington.

“The reason I went to the Bar when I did was after I had just over a year off so this was the time to go out on my own. I decided to go back into the workforce. I missed litigation. I loved the job at the Education Ministry but litigation is my thing.

“Crown law was a fantastic place to work, with a wide range of very interesting work.”

Lawyers in the family

Roanna has a daughter, Grace (pictured above with Roanna), who has just finished her third year at university studying for BA/BCom majoring in linguistics, economics and public policy.

“My sister was a lawyer, my ex-husband is a lawyer, my brother-in-law is a lawyer and a niece is a lawyer. When I met my ex my sister said I should be marrying somebody useful like a plumber.

“Learning Mandarin has become a passion of mine. I have finished the first stage and would like to finish the course then go overseas and immerse myself in it.

“Both Mum and Dad experienced a bit of racism back in the day. They were concerned that my sister and I assimilate rather than stick out as being different any more than we already did.

“Obviously, now people like to have that second or third language up their sleeve.

“Dad was born in Ohakune. He knew how to speak Cantonese but did not know how to read or write it. I was one level below - I could understand a lot, because I had picked up some of the language listening to my parents converse.

“Also, I travelled a lot to Hong Kong when I was younger and picked up a lot watching television in Hong Kong. I think I have an aptitude for languages. It would be nice to use the language in my practice eventually.

“I’ve been to Europe - Germany, Italy, France, England, Australia, San Francisco, Canada, but most trips have been to Hong Kong. I would like to go to Ireland and Scotland. I read Ian Rankin, so if I go to Edinburgh it would be like going home.

“I go to the gym and have an aptitude for that too. I like doing weight training.

“I had a personal trainer who suggested I do power building. I am naturally quite strong.

“My personal best for the bench press was 90kg and squats 110kg - that was after a bit of training. My trainer reckoned I could probably make 120 kilos in the squat. I haven’t done power lifting training for a while and it is something I would like to get back into.

Giving something back

“I volunteered for the Home of Compassion for many years. I had ties with that from my childhood. My mother nearly miscarried me when I was a baby. The Sisters of Compassion came to visit my Mum one day when she was very ill. I was looked after by them for about three months. They came to our fruit shop every Friday night. When I was assistant Crown Counsel I thought it would be good to give back to them and volunteered there for many years. I feel close to them.

“I admired my sister, although we ended up doing different things in the law. You could say my Mum was a bit of a tiger. We grew up in a family where not going to university was not an option.

“I guess I was influenced by my interests. I remember going to a family lawyer when I was about four and he said later on I was a real chatterbox, and my mum said I liked to argue. I figured maybe I had a natural bend to do something like law.

“I wasn’t into maths or science. I am into language. I enjoyed the fact you could help people with what you did. I like to work away at complex problems and find a good solution at the end. I like the human contact and the social interaction, like client contact. That’s why I like doing court work as well.”

Among cases that stand out during her career, Roanna recalls when she first started, she assisted Crown Counsel in the long-running Clyde dam arbitration.

“I also worked on a lot of employment cases, where a lot of interesting issues were involved. It was eye-opening to see the impact of people’s employment problems and their wellbeing, and the whole interaction between the employer and the employee. It was humbling to see the impact of that.”

One particular case – where she acted for the Corrections Department - was that of Christopher Gilbert, a probation officer, whose employment dispute involving breach of contract and workload stress, ran for nearly 13 years from the employment tribunal to a final Court of appeal decision in 2010.

Laughing at the wrong moments

“I used to play the piano a bit but didn’t like the practice and didn’t like some of the music I learned.

“I like a range of music including pop and light classical. Adele, the Bee Gees, Ed Sheeran, Beethoven, Mozart.

“I’m a member of a book group and like thrillers. I leave it to other people to choose the books. I like Lee Child, Jo Nesbo and other Scandinavian authors.

“I’m sometimes disappointed with movies based on books, such as the Jack Reacher series. I’m one of those people who starts giggling at inopportune times in films - at the crucial point. I cracked up when Pierce Brosnan started singing in Mama Mia.

“I have two cats from the SPCA. Loki, the god of mischief, and Panko, named after Japanese breadcrumbs. I adopted them in February and they get on. When I’m patting Panko, I’m also patting Loki, so they both get attention.

Roanna Chan's cats
Roanna Chan's cats

“My Toyota Corolla is reliable, but I would like a Tesla 3.

“I went back to China when I was about 26 and of all the places I visited, I felt I was at home when I went to the see a temple of Confucius - a simple complex of buildings. I sat in the courtyard and it was probably the first time I really understood what it was like to feel like I was Chinese.

“I don’t think of myself as Chinese necessarily - you don’t think about that. I felt at home there. I could envisage his pupils gathering around. It would be interesting to talk to him over dinner.

“Brad Pitt has the same birthday as me, although he is a year older, and it would be interesting to talk to someone like him. The movie stars might have everything but they are just like everyone else.

“I don’t do a lot of Chinese cooking. I mainly cook curries and roasts with salads. I’m allergic to red wine and some white but love gin. My mother had cooks and people to do all the housework. She could not boil an egg.

“She basically taught herself to do so many things that other people would have done for her, such as cooking, sewing, embroidery, knitting, cane work and flower arranging.

“She was a real inspiration to me, always acquiring new skills, and encouraging us to set our minds to do something then doing it.

“I’d like to see where I go with being a barrister, I think it will suit me well. I also want to do a bit of travel. I’ve always felt connected to Wellington. I’ve never felt I can go too far in the last few years and there’s a big list of places I want to go … Alaska in 2021 for example.

“I want to take each day as it comes. Since my sister died I guess my life attitude is quite different to what it used to be. I would like to do more with charity and some pro bono stuff. I feel I have a lot to offer.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I think I would be a detective. Being a police officer has the same human contact. And finding out by asking the right questions. I like problem-solving and I think I would have enjoyed that.

“Going to the Bar now was a great decision, I feel as though my mother and my aunt are guiding me in some way - like an empowering or motivational thing. I feel it is my time. A lot has happened in my life and this is definitely a new beginning. I feel I have more control over things.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at

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