New Zealand Law Society - The views of the candidates

The views of the candidates

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The New Zealand Law Society Council will elect a new President at its meeting in Wellington on 24 October. There are two candidates for the role.

The election will be decided by votes from each of the members of the Council. Law Society branches with more than 500 members (Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury-Westland and Waikato Bay of Plenty) receive more than one vote under a formula based on the number of lawyers practising within that branch. All other branches will have one vote, along with each of the three sections, the New Zealand Bar Association and Large Law Firms Group Ltd. A majority of the total votes and the support of the representatives of at least four branches is required to be elected. Board members may not vote in the election.

Standing for election are Nerissa Barber and Tiana Epati.

Photo of Nerissa Barber
Nerissa Barber.

Nerissa Barber is serving her third term on the Law Society's Board as Vice-President, Wellington. She has a background in governance, regulatory systems and organisational change. Ms Barber commenced her career in banking and finance and litigation at Simpson Grierson, then joined the Crown Office working in constitutional law.  She moved to the private sector, before re-joining the public sector at the State Services Commission. Ms Barber established the legal team at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, focusing on a wide variety of legal areas, including public law, Māori legal issues, and overseeing the legislation of 11 Crown entities.

Ms Barber has served four terms as Wellington Branch President, as a member of the Law Society's Services Delivery Group and national law reform committee in Human Rights. She re-established the Wellington Women in Law Committee and served as Convenor of the Legal Assistance Committee, which works with community law centres.

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Tiana Epati.

Tiana Epati is currently Vice-President, Central North Island and a partner with Gisborne law firm Rishworth Wall & Mathieson. She was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in September 2000 after graduating from Auckland University with a BA in philosophy and history and an LLB. She spent four years as a Crown prosecutor with Meredith Connell before moving to Wellington to work as a Crown prosecutor with Luke Cunningham Clere and, on a one-year fixed term contract, in the public law team at Izard Weston.

Ms Epati moved to the Crown Law Office in 2008 to work in the criminal law team before moving to Gisborne in 2012, where she has worked as a criminal defence lawyer with Rishworth Wall & Mathieson. She was President of the Law Society’s Gisborne branch from 2014 to 2016 and was elected Vice-President, Central North Island in April 2016.

New President will take up role in April 2019

The term of current President Kathryn Beck ends at the Law Society Council’s annual meeting in April 2019. The President-elect will receive guidance and training until assuming office in April 2019.

The views of the candidates

A number of questions were put to each candidate. They were asked to keep their responses to a maximum of 500 words for each question.

Why are you standing for New Zealand Law Society President?

Nerissa Barber: I care about our profession, and I’m standing because I believe my skill set and experiences are those we need at this time with the challenges we are facing as a profession.

I know the workings of the Law Society well. This includes being on my fourth term on the Board. I’m experienced in governance, regulatory systems and in organisational improvement.

I’m deeply concerned with the Law Society’s Survey results in bullying, sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace behaviour, particularly of women. I want to advance the culture change, but in a way that does not alienate the members of our profession who are great colleagues and employers.

I see this as an opportunity to advocate for the profession on key issues including access to justice, particularly in legal aid and in the family law area; the increased compliance costs especially as a result of AML; and I want to lead positive change.

The Law Society will need to respond to the Working Group Report chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright. If elected, I want to also run a strategic lens across the rest of the Society’s services, particularly in regulatory but also in other business services. I strongly believe in continuous improvement. We need to take learnings from other professions, be proactive and address issues at the outset, ensure good process across the organisation, be more approachable, open and collaborative. It is important to listen to both the good ideas and the complaints.

Tiana Epati: I think I can make a difference.

Until 2012, I was one of those people who didn’t think the Law Society was particularly relevant to me.  But I encountered an issue with judicial resourcing in Gisborne and took up the role of Branch President to change the situation. Gisborne has not had a resident judge for 15 years.  I asked for support and help from the Law Society National office and was given it.  Ultimately, it was a team effort involving local lawyers and National office representatives and staff. We now have two resident Judges.

I care a lot about what happens next.  As a lawyer. A woman. A person of Pacific Island descent.  And the mother of two Māori children.

Why did you become a lawyer?

Tiana Epati: My father was a lawyer.  He grew up in a small village on the western side of the island of Savaii in Samoa.  He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teenager.  He became a lawyer because he wanted to help people with their problems.  I had the privilege of watching him do that.  He was, for me, an example of what is possible despite the odds.  I wanted to do the same.

I love what I do.  I have represented the Crown, organisations, iwi and individual clients in some challenging cases.  It is enormously rewarding to help people and organisations navigate our legal system and be able to help with a problem or stressful situation.  In some instances, you have the opportunity to change the course of a person's life for the better.  There are plenty of challenges in this profession but the rewards make it worth it.

Nerissa Barber: I watched my father work very long hours but get immense satisfaction from solving people’s problems and from the collegiality in the profession.

For me it has been a similar experience. Practising law is a privilege. I enjoy the challenge of the fascinating issues we get, and helping people, making a difference.

I currently work in-house, and try to convince colleagues that life in the law is not all Boston Legal.

What are the biggest issues facing the New Zealand legal profession?

Nerissa Barber

  1. Our reputation - we need to rebuild trust. The reputation of the law profession has been damaged recently, both within our profession and in the eyes of the public at large.
  2. Confidence in our regulatory systems - Dame Silvia Cartwright’s report, and how we respond to it, will be pivotal. The response to Dame Silvia’s report is likely to involve changes to our regulatory systems. As well as a reputation risk, if there is a perception we cannot properly govern ourselves, there is a real risk the regulatory function will be taken away from us and imposed upon us from the outside.
  3. Sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other inappropriate workplace behaviour, and the need to change the culture in some parts of the profession while not alienating others.
  4. Practising well – supporting the wellbeing of our profession is vital. It is excellent to see the resources the Family Law Section and ILANZ, for example, are each putting into this area for their members.
    Our branches and sections can often see those who are struggling and are a kind of ‘early warning system’. They are well placed to reach out and provide support and can stop problems at the outset. We need to ensure branches and sections are supported in this and that the Society is able to address concerns raised.
  5. Access to justice due to the impact of the legal aid changes of a few years ago, and in other areas such as judicial resourcing and supporting community law centres. Related to this is getting good outcomes in the review of the Family Justice system.
  6. Around the corner is the future practice of law and the impact of technology on practice, including use of computers in place of, or to augment the work of lawyers, and we need to be increasingly technologically literate.

Tiana Epati

In the May 2018 annual survey the profession said the top four biggest challenges are (in the order of their priority):

1. Stress and anxiety;

2. Workplace health and safety;

3. Diversity (of all kinds) and inclusion; and

4. Financial stability and profitability.

What does the New Zealand Law Society need to do to address the cultural issues within the profession?

Tiana Epati: We need a regulatory complaints system which is fair and effective for dealing with issues of innapropriate and unacceptable behaviour.  We need a suite of protective measures for lawyers who raise sensitive matters to ensure it is a safe process.  We need flexibility in terms of process and outcomes.  We also need good support for both lawyers who make complaints and lawyers who are the subject of complaints.

We know improving diversity in senior leadership roles will have an impact on culture change.  There has been a lot of work in terms of women in the law.  However, diversity is wider than just gender.  The Society can lead culture change by ‘walking the talk’. That means ensuring we are doing everything we can to demonstrate we have cultural competence (for example, offering Te Reo to all employees) and are ensuring we have intersectional representatives on committees, panels and groups.

We need to deal with all the unacceptable behaviour.  The workplace survey gave us some additional data in terms of current bullying (within the six months leading up to the survey) of ethnic minorities which is motivated by race.  It also told us that 49% of the bullying was perpetrated by women.  We all need to take responsibility for the way we behave and for each other.  If every lawyer changes a little bit, the whole profession changes a lot.

Nerissa Barber: It’s absolutely vital and a huge priority for me that the problems of sexual harassment and misconduct are addressed.

It is really good we are having these conversations, that there is much more awareness and that inappropriate behaviour will be ‘called out’. The Society is doing work on culture change. A Taskforce has been established. There is an 0800 support line.

From following the debate, and talking to members of the profession, I know there are many law firms handling this area well. For example, a number of our law firms are already putting a lot of effort into running comprehensive seminars and workshops, and much great work.

There is a long-term educational role the Society, Continuing Legal Education (CLE), the universities and the providers of law professionals’ courses like the College of Law could play. I’m keen to work across the profession, including with young lawyers, women lawyers groups, the Māori Lawyers Association and other representative groups to involve and engage people, and receive their ideas and feedback.

Another key aspect is how our regulatory process works in that space. I want to ensure the Society’s regulatory processes are fit for purpose in today’s world. The standards of behaviour need to be discussed and then clearly communicated to all the members of our profession.

But at the same time, there are many lawyers who are terrific employers and colleagues. I don’t want to drive them into a ‘shell’ or alienate them, and that’s feedback I’ve been getting when I’ve been meeting with branches and sections across the country.

What would you bring to the role of President?

Nerissa Barber: I see the role of President as being a strong advocate for the legal profession, and for the rule of law and access to justice.

But not only that. The President also leads the Society’s strategic direction, working with the Board and the Council, and the Law Society Executive. So there’s a strong governance component to the role of President. Especially given the challenges we’re now facing. The President’s role going forward is about improving how we govern and regulate ourselves. I’m experienced in governance, regulatory reform and in organisational improvement.

I want to do the role openly, inclusively and collaboratively. That’s the approach I had when I was Wellington President. I want to reach out and engage with the different parts of our profession and also our stakeholders.

I believe the President must also listen – not just to the complaints but to the good ideas, and implement them.

I’ve a lot of experience and insights from across the profession. I’ve served four terms as Wellington President. Wellington has nearly 3,000 members, 16 committees and an active Council that meets monthly. I’ve also served on the Society’s Services Delivery Group, and in other roles. My background includes re-establishing the Wellington Women in Law Committee back in 2007. I was co-convenor of the Wellington Women in Law Committee for several years, and remain a Committee member, so have insights from this too.

For me, it would be an honour to take on the role, a key aspect of which is service to the profession and to the community.

Tiana Epati: I bring a new and fresh perspective. My own culteral literacy and background makes me qualified to drive diversity and inclusion.  I have a criminal practice background which has involved both prosecution and defence.  I understand the balance which must be struck between making it easier to raise complaints against perpetrators of unacceptable behaviour and the rules of natural justice.

I have had the broadest contact with the profession.  I started in a large law firm in Auckland.  I then worked in medium sized firms in Welllington before working in Government. I am now a partner in a small law firm in one of New Zealand’s smallest regions.

If elected President, what are three things you would like to achieve over a three-year term?

Tiana Epati

An effective and fair complaints system for dealing with all unacceptable behaviour.

A well researched and considered plan for long term culture change.

A material improvement in access to justice outcomes for members of our community and lawyers who are undertaking, or want to undertake, legal aid work.

Nerissa Barber

I’ve set out the six key issues I see facing the profession, and if elected will prepare a strategic plan around each of them. I also want to achieve:

  1. Gains in advocacy for Access to Justice issues, including in the legal aid rates, the review of the Family Justice System and supporting community law centres.
  2. In the media for good news: I’d like the Society and the law profession to be in the media highlighting the great work being done by members of our profession. There’s recently been a lot of negative publicity – we need to make sure to promote the good we do.
  3. Our culture:
    1. I’d like to see positive results from the next Survey on workplace culture.
    2. The Society being a leader in openness, transparency and engagement. The new website presents a great opportunity to publish the majority of Board papers, Board minutes, Strategic Plan and financial details; and to have an open process in calling for expressions of interest for all memberships along with criteria, and placing notices on our website on appointments.
    3. Re-thinking how we work together: branch councils, sections and other key stakeholders being closely involved in the development of our Society’s strategic plan, and in the activities flowing from it.
    4. Building on the work of the Early Resolution Service, and having a culture where the Society proactively intervenes in a helpful way to try to ‘nip things in the bud’ before they escalate.
    5. Taking learnings from best practice in other New Zealand regulatory bodies, and what we are hearing from the profession, consumers of legal services and other key stakeholders, and review our regulatory and other services. The new website presents a great opportunity to explain the Society’s processes.
    6. Supporting our members: As I’ve been round the country I’ve been concerned some of our branches are under strain. I want to ensure all our branches and sections are properly resourced. I see our branches as being vital to our culture, particularly our practising well initiatives, to ensuring collegiality, providing affordable continuing professional development, and as the gateway to members of our profession being involved in the regulatory part of the Society.
If elected President, how would you connect with and build a relationship with younger lawyers and new members of the profession?

Nerissa Barber: Listening to younger lawyers and new members of the profession is vital to have a strong and inclusive profession.

When commencing my ‘campaign’, I met up with our local Young Lawyers Committee, a very talented group of around 20 younger members of our profession. We discussed many issues including having guidance for new members of our profession on what they can expect in the workplace, for example guidance on training. For many it is their first job, and they have no expectations of the workplace. The research in Josh Pemberton’s report shows support in those early years is vital. We need to provide assistance to members of our profession in their early years.

I agree with the Young Lawyers Committee that having ongoing regular engagement with the President would be really useful. I’d want to meet with young lawyers around the country regularly.

I’d also like to support young lawyers to be more connected around the country. As I’ve met with branches, I can see a need to ensure young lawyers across regions are well connected with each other and ideally get to young lawyer events across the country. I’d support young lawyers in holding an annual young lawyers conference to help foster this connectivity.

A request made to both candidates at one of our Branch Council meetings was for young lawyers to have a representative at the New Zealand Law Society Council. I’ve thought for some time that this would be valuable.

In addition, when we design membership of Law Society committees, for example the Services Delivery Working Group, we should ensure we have representation from young lawyers (and from other key groups).

I’ve enjoyed meeting new members and their families at the many Welcome functions we’ve held following High Court admissions to the Bar. These are good opportunities to foster relationships and highlight the benefits of collegiality within our profession.

Engaging with universities is also pivotal, and in law professionals programmes. As Wellington President I liaised with the Victoria University Law Faculty and the local law students association.

There is a terrific mentoring scheme called Bridging the Gap run by young lawyers where they support students in their final years - sponsored by one of our large law firms. The Wellington Women Lawyers Association runs a mentoring scheme. I’m keen to support these kinds of initiatives across the country.

Tiana Epati: I think it helps that I am (as I understand it) the youngest candidate ever to run for President.

I gave a public lecture to the law students at Otago Law School in September this year.  I spent the afternoon having one-on-one discussions with students and later had dinner with the Pacific Island Law Students Association executive and faculty staff. It was an invaluable experience which I would want to continue. There is no substitute for kanohe ki te kanohe.

I would review the NZLS communications strategy with a view to making it a specific focus to reach out to younger lawyers and new members.  We have a new generation of young lawyers that communicate in a very different way.  We need to modernise.

We have some great young lawyers committees around the country doing lots of work within their local regions.  I would look at bringing these committees and groups together at the national level to see if we can synthesise initiatives such as mentoring programmes, interview practice, career advice panels and resilience training, etc. I also think we need a young lawyer representative at the NZLS Council table to ensure they have a stronger voice.

What do you do outside the law?

Tiana Epati: I have been learning to surf over each summer for the last six years.  I would still call myself a beginner but I can get ‘out the back’ with my long board in the right conditions.

My children (aged 7 and 11) now ride bikes and scooters so I have also learnt to ride a skateboard to keep up with them. I am often seen by Gisborne locals skating with my children along the long concrete Wainui cycle and walkway.

I love visiting new and interesting countries. I went to Cambodia this year which was a life changing experience. I am planning to travel to Peru next and climb Machu Pichu.

Nerissa Barber: Outside of the law, I enjoy our heritage and cultural sector. My husband David is a classical music broadcaster with Radio New Zealand Concert, and we listen to lots of classical music. We also enjoy food and wine, walking, and catching up with friends.

I am a keen member of many organisations that support contemporary art, and art galleries and museums. This includes my being a member or life member of just about every art gallery in the country!

In addition we are patrons of the Adam Art Gallery and the Wellington City Art Gallery. I am also a trustee of the Wellington City Art Gallery Foundation.

In the last few years I have been a trustee of the C Art Trust – where we have patrons from across the country. The Trust provides a grant to an artist to help them take their career to the next level. It is immensely satisfying having this involvement.

David and I appreciate having closer connections with galleries and artists. A highlight for me is meeting lots of different people with a common enthusiasm for arts and culture.

I am also a trustee of a charitable trust which provides annual grants to charities, mostly in Dunedin.


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