New Zealand Law Society - Homecoming partnership bottom line for globe-trotting Māori lawyer

Homecoming partnership bottom line for globe-trotting Māori lawyer

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Kiri Tahana
Kiri Tahana

When Kiri Tahana and husband Steve Watene came back home in 2016 with three kids after many years working in Sydney and Dubai, friends gave her good advice.

“I came in as a partner to the firm this year, that was the deal. Wise friends told me ‘do not ask for anything less’. It was good advice because I think we sell ourselves short sometimes,” says Kiri, who is a Rotorua-based partner with Kahui Legal, where her specialty is commercial law and litigation.

“I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, not many people have done what I have done,” Kiri laughs.

Kiri Tahana (Te Arawa, Ngati Pikiao, Tapuika)
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Hons) and BA (Politics and Māori) from Victoria University in 1995. Admitted in 1996.
Partner at Kahui Legal, Rotorua.
Speciality area
Commercial law and litigation.

That includes seven years as a lawyer with Sydney firm Gilbert & Tobin – including a year on secondment in Dubai – where Kiri decided to stay on, and did another five years as senior director of legal counsel with Dubai’s telecom company du.

In a break from Gilbert & Tobin, Kiri returned to New Zealand for two and a half years with the Commerce Commission where she worked on the successful prosecution of Telecom for misuse of market power.

Earlier in her career, at Bell Gully, she worked under now Justice Joe Williams on the Māori fisheries allocation case around what is an iwi. “It’s a bit sad now looking back on it but it was fascinating to be involved in as a junior.

“Our witnesses were all the te reo Māori experts and we were briefing them in te reo. To be able to combine the language and the law was fascinating. But it was quite tragic that we were in a court arguing over these issues. Looking back I don’t think that was the right place. But it was an awesome experience and one of the most interesting matters I’ve ever dealt with.”

Husband Steve is a sports development manager for the Rotorua Lakes Council, looking after stadiums, sports events and developing sports in the district.

They have three sons - Rukutai (14) born in Sydney, Te Rae ki Moehau (10) born in Wellington and Arawa (3) born in Dubai.

Kiri is the first lawyer in the family. Her older sister Ngaroma followed Kiri into law as a second career at 30 and is a crime lawyer and prosecutor in Rotorua. The family moved back from Auckland to Rotoiti when Kiri was 13.

Politics runs deep in the whānau

Her late father Arapeta Tahana was one of the founders, with Matiu Rata and others, of the Mana Motuhake party, and stood for Parliament in 1981.

“Dad was originally a teacher and was very political. We were always raised quite political and law for us was around ‘how can we best help Māori’.

“That’s why I was attracted to law because I thought it was a great tool to be able to redress some of the historical injustices. And I like debating, public speaking, arguing, and English, all the subjects aligned.

“I wanted to be a lawyer quite young, from about 13. It was always something I wanted to do. I did Māori, politics and law at university.”

With a Māori father and a part Scottish, part English mother, she has international family connections. Her grandmother met her grandfather in Canada, so there have been family reunions in New Zealand, Scotland and Canada to connect with her mother’s family.

She started her career at Bell Gully, moved to Walters Williams and then to Gilbert & Tobin in Sydney. “Steve was at a conference there and a friend suggested I apply for a job. I had never considered working in Australia but I got it.

“They were boom times in Australia then but it’s not really travelling going to Australia, so when London firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer came to Sydney on a recruitment drive I ended up in London for a year.

“After that we took time out and did five months travelling in Europe, Africa, Egypt, the Maldives, Damascus before the troubles in Syria, and Turkey before going back to Gilbert & Tobin because I missed Sydney.

“Europe is one of my favourites places. Africa is amazing but confronting because of the poverty. I liked South Africa but Zimbabwe is not good.”

Road to Dubai

“My favourite place to live was Dubai because it is such a multi-cultural place. In the workplace you have people from everywhere and I didn’t really know anything about Islam or Arabic culture so it was a really great place to learn about that. I didn’t learn Arabic but can speak bits and pieces.

“Arabic is compulsory in all schools so the older children learned it. By the time they were seven they were doing Arabic and English plus Māori. Most children there are multi-lingual, very few are mono-lingual.

“This is where Dubai was fascinating because they were the opposite to the whole misconception of Arabia, the Middle East and Islam. They were looking completely outwardly and thinking ahead.

“Technology is such a huge thing, they are miles ahead. They ask ‘what do we want our city to look like in 50 years’, then they built it. They are very forward thinking, and very, very tolerant.

“There are completely different cultures and religions and everyone welcomed in but it is acknowledging that you respect others and do things in a way that doesn’t offend.

“You can do whatever you want but you keep that inside the hotel and not in the shopping malls or wherever else.”

Kiri says working in the Middle East made her more open and conscious of how informed people are by their cultural backgrounds. “I don’t think we appreciate that but when you are in a room where ten of you are all from a different cultural background you realise there is no one right way.”

Before coming home in 2016 the family hired an RV and spent two months following the US elections – getting to hear Michelle Obama speak - and seeing the country from Florida to San Francisco.

“My husband is a sportsman. I am training for a half marathon which our firm sponsors. In Dubai events and triathlons are becoming more common so I would do mainly running races, adventure races and mud races.

“Being Maori we have marae things, family events and trusts we are all part of.”

Helping women lawyers  

“In terms of law I am on the Women in Law committee for Rotorua, which was set up this year. It’s good for me because I have just come back and it gets me into the swing of things.

“We also have Te Arawa women’s group, talking about careers. My passion is around helping women as much as possible, and also supporting our Ngati Pikiao tribal development.

“I’m absolutely useless at music but like kapahaka and we had a kapahaka group in Dubai. I like R&B and Beyonce’s Lemonade album but I am not a huge music person.

“For reading I am a self-help junkie, non-fiction and the Blinkist app –which summarises books. I have no favourite authors but love things around leadership development, mindfulness and organisational development.

“I love films - Pulp Fiction is one of my favourites, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. I want to see Waru and Thor. I liked Suits, Scandal and Stranger Things on TV. My sons and husband have introduced me to the superhero world.

“My favourite actors would be Emily Stone and Jennifer Lawrence.

“For me the East Coast is a top holiday spot but we don’t go there that often. When Dad stood for Mana Motuhake we went all round there. I love the isolation and the people were amazing. When we camped they would drop off cray fish and sea foods.

“We had an auntie who was from there. We camped at Port Awanui, out from Ruatoria, where one of my auntie’s brothers had a farm. I like Tokomaru Bay, Hicks Bay, all around there. And Akaroa, which is pretty stunning.”

There are no pets on Kiri and Steve’s 1.2 ha plot at Rotoiti, but three cows. “Coward, Steak and something else – the kids named them.

“I drive a Nissan Pathfinder – with three kids seven-seaters are the only option.”

Kina and triple chocolate brownies for the Obamas

“Michelle Obama and her husband would be my dinner guests. We would give them some kinas, raw fish, and Māori-themed lamb. Showcase the best of New Zealand lamb and seafood. And triple chocolate brownies for dessert - that’s my husband’s favourite.

“With Veuve champagne and Oyster Bay pinot gris.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I would be doing something around people development, working with people. I am most passionate about people and getting the best out of them.

“I considered politics but don’t want to stand now as a candidate. I would be happy to support somebody. My friend Stacey Shortall (partner at MinterEllisonRuddWatts) would be a great prime minister. She’s my inspiration.

“If you have economic power then political power follows. So part of me would prefer to use my skills to help Māori build their economic asset base. I think a lot of us are attracted to politics and there are probably enough people there, but fewer people in building the base.

“I like the idea of just getting on with it and not worrying about elections and politics. I’m less tolerant of politics as I get older.

“Trying to keep my three sons in order - which is not an easy task – is a big enough challenge.

“Mixing a teenager and a toddler – that’s not something many people do both at the same time. If I can nail that it will be my greatest achievement.”

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