New Zealand Law Society - Tiana Epati, President-Elect

Tiana Epati, President-Elect

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Tiana Epati
Tiana Epati

Talofa lava

Mahia i runga i te rangimarie me te ngakau mahake.

I am very humbled and honoured to have been elected President of the New Zealand Law Society. I will become the 31st President and I am deeply mindful that I am joining a long line of people who have taken up the wero (challenge) of leading the legal profession.

Of course, I will not be taking up the role until April 2019. Kathryn Beck is President and I would like to pay tribute to the fantastic job that Kathryn has done and continues to do.

This year has been a challenging one for our profession. There has been an unprecedented and justified focus on the culture in legal workplaces, the role of the Law Society as regulator, and how to achieve gender and ethnic equality of opportunity among lawyers.

The Law Society’s Legal Workplace Environment Survey found that 31% of women who responded had been sexually harassed at some time. The Law Society and the wider profession have commenced a wide range of actions and initiatives to address the issues and to put lasting and effective changes in place.

As Law Society President Kathryn Beck has been a tireless leader and spokesperson. As a member of the Law Society Board, I can attest to the energy, commitment, and courage, which Kathryn has brought to leading us on what will be a long pathway to securing the many changes which are needed.

While I am aware of the pressures attached to the role, I’d like to say why I am looking forward to becoming President in April next year.

Until 2012, I was one of those people who didn’t think the Law Society was particularly relevant to me. Then I encountered an issue with judicial resourcing in Gisborne and took up the role of branch President to change the situation. Gisborne had 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, national office representatives and staff. We now have two resident Judges; that brought home the importance of our national organisation and how it can use the power of 14,000 lawyers to effect important changes in our justice system.

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.

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.

What are we facing as a profession? The May 2018 annual national survey of lawyers found lawyers themselves think the four biggest challenges facing lawyers are:

  • Stress and anxiety;
  • Workplace health and safety;
  • Diversity (of all kinds) and inclusion; and
  • Financial stability and profitability.

We need a regulatory complaints system which is fair and effective for dealing with issues of inappropriate 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 processes 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 much work done in terms of women in the law. However, diversity is more than gender. The Law Society can lead culture change by ‘walking the talk’. This means ensuring we are doing everything we can to demonstrate we have cultural competence (for example, offering Te Reo Māori learning opportunities to all employees), and ensuring we have intersectional representatives on committees, panels and groups.

We need to deal with all the unacceptable behaviour. The Workplace Environment survey gave us some additional data in terms of bullying (for the six months leading up to the survey in April 2018) of ethnic minorities which is motivated by race. It also told us that 49% of general bullying was perpetrated by women. We all need to take responsibility for the way we behave and be responsible for each other too. If every lawyer changes a little bit, the whole profession changes a lot.

I look forward to working with all of you in this important and ultimately rewarding profession on our journey to achieving a just culture.

He waka eke noa. We are all in this together.

Tiana Epati
President-Elect, New Zealand Law Society

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