New Zealand Law Society - Witnessing Māori legal firsts inspired rural Southlander

Witnessing Māori legal firsts inspired rural Southlander

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Winton-born wahine Alice Anderson doesn’t forget her kickstart in law in the deep south.

Two years into her University of Otago law degree she didn’t want to continue her legal studies – she was homesick and missed her mother.

That was until she was put in touch with Invercargill firm Preston Russell and its partners Riki Donnelly and Crown Solicitor Mary-Jane Thomas.

Alice Marie (Alice) Anderson (Ngai Tahu)
Winton, in Southland.
Entry to law
Graduated BA (Majoring in Indigenous Development) and LLB from Otago University in 2016. Admitted in 2016.
Dundas Street Employment Lawyers, Wellington.
Speciality area
Employment law.
Alice Anderson
Alice Anderson

“I didn’t want to go back to law school after a couple of years, I was homesick and missing Mum. Someone put me in touch with Preston Russell and they said ‘you are going back to law school and will work with us’.”

Preston Russell took Alice in from when she was a second-year law student.

“Mary-Jane and Riki were my teachers through those years.

“In a law firm it is completely different in practice to what it is at law school. They said to come and work for them in the winter break and they would look after me - and they did.

“Everything I do I attribute to them. I was lucky to have those good relationships early on.”

Alice recently moved from McCaw Lewis in Hamilton to join specialist firm Dundas Street Employment Lawyers in Wellington.

Alice in Winton

She and her older sister Stacey grew up with their mother, Janine. “Three wahine together. We loved mum and she did everything for us. She is a cool mum.”

“Mum decided a couple of years ago to follow her dream and opened up her own clothing store in Winton. She also travels around the country as an agent for a clothing brand, selling clothes to different stores and stays with me when she comes to Wellington.”

Stacey is a primary school teacher in Arrowtown. The sisters started their “journeys” after university and both went back home.

“We did our time back home, being in the community we grew up in. Stacey taught in a school just out of Winton and I worked in Invercargill for the first couple of years, then we both moved on. We went home first - it was important for us to be in the community.

“I’ve got a bit slack over the years with sport, after playing netball, basketball and doing corporate rowing in Invercargill. But it is important to look after your physical health.

“I go to the gym now and decided to get a personal trainer. I go to the gym before work because I find it crucial for wellbeing to look after all facets of my health.

“I would love to get into waka ama or rowing in Wellington. The water is beautiful here. And I spend a lot of time catching up with friends - they are all over the country - when I can get a cheap flight.

“My sister Tracey and I both started our journey through our whakapapa, learning who we are, when we went to university. Learning what it meant to be Māori, that beautiful journey of finding out who you are. That is a life-long journey.

“We often still talk about what we need to find and keep the connections growing, keep learning the language. At the moment I am looking into all the different courses for learning te reo.

“I only moved to Wellington in November, so I am still learning the ropes and figuring everything out in the capital. I went to McCaw Lewis in Hamilton from Invercargill and through that did a lot of kapa haka with my workmates.

“Then this opportunity arose to join an employment law firm. That is my passion.

“I took that opportunity when it came up and moved to Wellington. I love my journey through whakapapa, doing it through kapa haka and waiata.

“Originally I wanted to work for Mary-Jane Thomas and Riki Donnelly in Invercargill as a criminal lawyer and Crown solicitor. A lot of people want to do criminal work as soon as they get out of law school.

“Mary-Jane knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. She ran a busy employment law practice so when I started with her she said ‘we are not going to do criminal at the moment, I need you to help me with employment’.

“She said I had an eye for detail and was personable and that’s what we need in our employment lawyers; they trained me in an effective way and I loved it.

“We spend most of our lives at work and it’s important that we have safe, happy and healthy workplaces. As much as a lot of the work we do is dealing with disputes, what I love is helping employers, in particular, and workplaces with their preventative measures and how we create holistic, happy, healthy workplaces for people to being going to every day.

“You get so much contact with different people and learn so much about different industries and sectors. I have gone from forestry disputes to government departments.”

‘Everyone should learn about the law’

Alice is the first lawyer in her family and her sister Stacey was the first family member for a long time to go to university. Alice is an active member of Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa, the Māori Law Society, and has previously sat on their national executive committee as a regional representative.

Head girl at Central Southland College in Winton, she enjoyed advocating for different things and different people.

“The teachers said I should think about doing law. But you don’t know what the law is until you get into it. It’s not something we learn at school and I think it should be.

“I think every New Zealander should know a little bit about how the legal system works, so we get better reporting in the media and our kids grow up to know what their rights are.

“Law is not something you are exposed to at school unless you are on the wrong side of it.

“So I thought law was a good idea. I would get to argue for the underdog all the time as a job and it sounded cool. But only 200 get in out of 700 or 800 who apply for law at Otago. I got in and am loving it.”

Alice says the jobs she did to pay her way through university – working in a pub, in forestry and in a sawmill – helped her understand employment issues.

“I probably knew I would go into private practice for a start. Also doing a BA and indigenous development degree was more for the enjoyment factor and helped me learn who I was.

“I have a different travel philosophy. I want to see the world but I wanted to see New Zealand first. So many New Zealanders do not see our beautiful country in its entirety.

“I grew up down south and have done the trip round the South Island when young and when I lived in Dunedin, moved to Hamilton, saw the top half of the North Island and am now in the bottom half of the North Island. I’ve been to Australia but nowhere further - that is for the future.”

Kapa haka ‘feels good’

“I certainly sing and dance but don’t know I do it particularly well. I have always said that when doing kapa haka it may not sound good, but it feels good.

“Mum bought me a drum kit when I was young and I gave them a bash for a year, but not particularly well. I had a guitar and had piano lessons. I’ve tried everything but I’m one of those people that if I’m not particularly good within 10 seconds it doesn’t last very long.

“My Spotify playlist is a mix of old classics like Elton John, Abba, Creedance Clearwater Revival and new stuff. I listen to a lot of different Māori waiata as well. It helps with pronunciation, makes me feel good and that’s how you learn.

“I don’t read much because we do so much reading for work. I don’t find it overly enjoyable and it loses a bit of its novelty when you are reading all day.

“My absolute guilty pleasure is Survivor. Watching Survivor to unwind after a long day. You have to let your brain breath. Another guilty pleasure is The Casketeers - it’s the perfect balance between laughter and tears. Such a beautiful and hilarious programme.

“And I’m a sucker for Netflix. It’s really great if I get to go to the movies with friends, or my sister, or Mum. The last film I saw was Rocketman in Hamilton.

“Queenstown is my favourite holiday spot. I have had the same best friend for 21 years and nearly every year we would go with our family to Frankton and holiday in Queenstown over New Year.

“No matter where I am in the country we are always back together over Christmas and New Year in Queenstown. It is a beautiful spot and for me, it is symbolic of togetherness with the family.

“I have no pets. I would love a dog but that’s too cruel while I am at work. Mum and her partner Dean have a golden lab called George which I adore. I live my parenting of pets through them.”

“My 1998 Daihatsu Charade gets me from A to B and I can’t believe how it still goes. I have spent far more money on that car than it’s worth. It went from my Gran to my Mum to me. It went from Dunedin to Invercargill, got transported to Hamilton, and transported to Wellington because I didn’t think it would make the drive.

“My former boss Mary-Jane Thomas said she would buy me a new car if it meant I didn’t spend money transporting it to Hamilton. But it has come with me and is still going strong.”

Japanese food for Justice Joe

“Justice Joe Williams, the first Māori judge on the Supreme Court, would be my dinner guest. As Māori we are in a very important time in the law and I would love to talk with him about where we’ve come and where we still have to go. And nut it all out with Justice Joe. I would love that.

“I would have to up my cooking game. My cooking leaves a little bit to be desired. I do what needs to be done to survive.

“I would have to invite my sister as another guest so she could help me cook, and Mum and Gran can come too so they can help in the kitchen.

“I love Japanese food so I would maybe get caterers in for Justice Joe. I have a kambucha a day, I love it, and don’t mind the odd light beer. I try not to have too much alcohol any more. The party days are over.

“I have been lucky enough to be in the law in one way or another for a lot of firsts. I was at Otago University when Professor Jacinta Ruru became the first Māori professor in law. I will never forget that and her first inaugural professorial lecture. She’s a huge inspiration.

“Another first was Justice Joe becoming the first Māori judge of the Supreme Court.

“There have been a lot of firsts I have been a part of, support and be inspired by. In terms of my specific practice, a lot of my biggest successes have happened behind closed doors in mediation.

“Some of the most memorable moments for me have been when I have been able to act in dispute resolution in a way that upholds the mana of everybody. In a way that is in accordance with the tikanga (customary system of values) of those people involved, and in a way that provides some closure for people moving forward.

“Going to court nobody really wins. Some cases need to go for the law but a lot of the time it can be settled outside the courtroom. When you can do that and everybody can walk away with some form of closure, and their mana intact, then I go home feeling pretty good at the end of the day.

“I was bridesmaid at a wedding recently so I think I would like to be a marriage celebrant if I wasn’t a lawyer. I like writing a good speech. I have been meaning to get a celebrant’s licence for ages. I would run a good ceremony.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. If you think you would make for an interesting profile, or know of someone who would, contact Jock at

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