“When people think about law firms that specialise in advising Māori clients they think that we spend all of our time in the Waitangi Tribunal and the Māori Land Court, but we have a much more diverse practice than that,” says partner Matanuku Mahuika.
Kahui Legal has some big clients. It acts for Waikato-Tainui, a tribe that includes about 65,000 members. They’ve also been involved in legal work for the South Island’s Ngai Tahu, the first iwi group to enter into a Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown back in 1996.
“These are organisations which have balance sheets in excess of $1 billion dollars. We represent everything from small Māori trusts to some of the biggest tribes in the country,” Mr Mahuika says.
Kahui Legal in Wellington’s Murphy Street is only a few short skips from Parliament.
It was set up in 2003 to provide high quality but cost effective services to Māori organisations and to assist in the growth and development of Māori business and reconciliation of historical issues affecting tangata whenua.
“Doing what we do gives us a unique opportunity to contribute to the communities that we come from. Every lawyer except partner Jamie Ferguson is Māori, and Jamie has been at the forefront in advocating on Māori legal issues going back to the time of the Ngai Tahu settlement,” he says.
The third partner at Kahui Legal is Damian Stone who is of Ngāti Kahungunu descent.
Mr Mahuika’s iwi background is Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Raukawa. He gained his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at Victoria University and was admitted in 1991.
Mr Mahuika and Mr Ferguson were previously partners in the firm Walters Williams & Co which was founded by Justice Joe Williams before he became the Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court in 1999.
But that’s another story and Kahui Legal is heading towards 14 years in business and, including the three partners, it employs about 20 staff.
Many of the firm’s lawyers were previously employed by the country’s largest law firms.
“We understand the benefit of the training that big firms provide. Jamie, Damian and I all started out at big law firms. I started at Simpson Grierson, and Jamie and Damian started their legal careers at Bell Gully,” says Mr Mahuika.
It wasn’t difficult to find employees from these firms to work at Kahui Legal because the Māori legal community isn’t that large.
Is the work more personal at Kahui Legal because it is for Māori?
Mr Mahuika says their lawyers cannot afford to get too caught up in the emotion of the Māori issues they’re dealing with because that would limit their ability to be the objective counsel that people need.
“There is a personal aspect to our work because often we identify with the issues that we are advocating for. But while there may be a deep personal connection to the legal issues we work on, you also have to lift yourself out of that and try not to personalise the issues too much,” he says.
Mr Mahuika says it’s about exercising professional judgement.
“If we are involved in a treaty negotiation, for example, it’s about focusing on helping the client to get the best outcome. It’s not the fight. If there is a better way of getting there than having a fight, then it’s in the best interest of the client to take that pathway.”
Career progression at Kahui Legal
Matanuku Mahuika says if the firm is to be sustainable and have a life beyond the current partners, then career pathways must be offered to their lawyers.
“People need to understand that there is an opportunity for them to one day be in charge and that is certainly a good thing for our clients as they’ll get fresh talent committed to the values that led to us setting the firm up,” he says.
Senior associate Horiana Irwin-Easthope gained a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts degree in Māori Resource Management at Victoria University, Wellington where she grew up.
She was admitted in 2009, so the progression to a senior role has been rapid.
In 2014, she graduated with a Masters of Law from the prestigious Harvard Law School in the United States.
Her legal career began at Russell McVeagh where she worked for two years in the litigation and resource management Māori legal teams.
But six years ago she was cherry picked by Kahui Legal.
Her family are mostly teachers but law appealed to her because of a love for debating at school, English and problem solving.
“I was attracted to Law and Māori studies at University because I wanted to focus on law and te reo. There weren’t too many Māori in my law classes, but we had a tight cohort and I think more Māori are getting into law because they want to come out of university with skills that will enable them to help their communities in some way,” she says.
Ms Irwin-Easthope feels a strong sense of commitment to using her legal skills to advocate for Māori.
“With settlement (Treaty of Waitangi) work, for a lot of our clients it is the end of one jouney and the beginning of another. I’ve acted for some of my own iwi in a recent settlement, so sometimes it can be very personal but I also have to be professional and do my job to achieve the best outcome for the client,” she says.
A whānau culture at Kahui Legal
“I’m surprised there aren’t kids running around the office today. We like to think of ourselves as a whānau, therefore we look after each other as whānau,” she says.
Ms Irwin-Easthope says the whānau theme is impressed upon junior legal staff who’ve recently started their careers at Kahui Legal.
It’s that work culture which has her confident that her future is firmly engrained with Kahui Legal.
“I can’t see myself practising law anywhere else unless I went into a sole practice. There’s nowhere else like this in the New Zealand legal landscape so we are unique in that sense.
“There are firms with strong Māori teams but this is where I want to be because if I want to pursue a particular legal issue, I can do it. The Partners are supportive of staff working on matters that they are passionate about,” she says.
Firm partner aspirations?
Becoming a partner at Kahui Legal is a goal for the young mum who has a one-year old son.
“It will take hard work to get there but that is definitely my plan. If it wasn’t a pathway, I wouldn’t be here.”
Ms Irwin-Easthope says career progression is encouraged at Kahui Legal.
“For me, being involved at a senior level means not only building a practice but it is also about putting time and effort into investing in law students and young Māori lawyers. We all had the benefit of being mentored, and repaying that by mentoring new lawyers is important for the profession,” she says.
Experts in all issues affecting Māori
All of Kahui Legal’s senior lawyers are experts in Treaty of Waitangi matters. They provide commercial legal advice on a wide range of issues affecting Māori from small company compliance matters to complex issues such as structuring multi party arrangements for utilising Māori land blocks for a kiwifruit project or dairy farming. They also specialise in legal issues involving natural resources such as Māori fisheries, water, the foreshore and seabed, forestry and minerals. They also represent Māori interests in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
Kahui Legal often works with the Government on key legal issues affecting Maori such as Māori land development where Mr Mahuika chaired the 2012 Ministerial Panel that reviewed the Maori Land Act 1993.
No room for complacency just because you’re a Māori law firm
Could it be argued that Kahui Legal has a competitive advantage over non-Māori law firms?
Mr Mahuika says Māori clients don’t come to Kahui Legal just because they’re a Māori-focussed firm.
“It’s something that people like in our firm but it doesn’t compensate if you don’t do a good job. You always have to maintain your professional standards and ensure that the quality of the advice you give is of the highest quality.
“Māori clients, particularly the bigger ones, are discerning. They understand what they need from a legal provider and are not just going to come to you because you’re Māori. We can’t compromise our standards. If we can’t offer them what they need, they’ll simply approach another legal firm,” he says.
Whānau is important to Matanuku Mahuika who now lives in Gisborne and has commuted regularly to Wellington over the past four years.
Developing upon Ms Irwin-Easthope’s love of the whānau culture at the practice, Mr Mahuika says flexibility is part of the culture at Kahui Legal and reflecting Māori values is about supporting them too.
“We have a number of people who work part-time and we’ve only ever had around three legal staff that aren’t female, so a large number of children have been born during the time that we’ve had the firm running.
“You need to keep your best talent and you also want to be able to provide career pathways and not have an environment where people feel like they can’t do other things like have a family or live in places which are close to family.”
So, it’s not uncommon to see children roaming the hallways at Kahui Legal sometimes.
“I’ve had each of my three kids running around being a nuisance from time to time during the time since we started the firm. You should be able to bring your children to work occasionally and not have people worrying about it or feeling like it is inappropriate.”
The name Kahui didn’t just fall out of the sky; it too has a Māori story.
“It was my late father who came up with the name Kahui. A “kahui” is a ‘group with a common goal’ and dad chose this for our name to reflect our coming together with our particular skills for a common purpose. It (Kahui) also reflects the idea of resolving issues so that communities can come together,” he says.