New Zealand Law Society - Tiana Epati

Tiana Epati

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Tiana Epati
Tiana Epati

What are the issues which are facing New Zealand’s legal profession?

The issues affecting the profession are considerable but also extremely varied. Currently, we face the pressing need for fundamental culture change, major advances in artificial intelligence and technology, increase in regulation, and access to justice for many in our country becoming increasingly out of reach. Unsurprisingly, when lawyers were asked in the Law Society’s annual survey what the major challenges for them were, they said stress and anxiety.

2019 will be a year of delivery. We will be implementing the recommendations of the Working Group led by Dame Silvia Cartwright on our regulatory system to ensure we have an effective complaints regime to deal with, and deter, unacceptable behaviour. These recommendations are relatively complex and wide-reaching. They include: changes to our Act, standards committees’ regulations, the practice rules, CPD rules and rules of conduct and client care. Some have already been enacted – for example, the setting up of a national specialised standards committee to hear sensitive complaints.

In November, the Culture Change Taskforce will also deliver its report on long term culture change. The Taskforce is a key player in developing a strategic framework and action plan that will support the creation and maintenance of healthy, safe, respectful, and inclusive legal workplaces. The 19-member taskforce represents a broad group of people, communities and regions across our profession. It brings together lawyers and non-lawyers of differing ages and experiences from around the country. My immediate focus as President will be to look at the Law Society to ensure it has the organisational capacity and the right structure to ensure we can quickly start delivering on a culture change strategy plan this year. Other initiatives can begin right now.

We will do some deep thinking in relation to major advances in technology which are increasingly seeing the ‘middleman’ removed from transactions. More support and education will be needed for lawyers currently grappling with this change to our practice environment. Regulating in this area will also create issues in a couple of years with the meaning of a ‘person’ and ‘property’ becoming complicated by the emergence of artificial intelligence and crypto-currency. Having a strong relationship with the law schools will be a key feature given they will need to re-think how we teach the practice of law.

We also need to provide the profession with clear guidelines in a changing regulatory environment. In addition to the changes resulting from the Working Group, our profession is still working through the challenges associated with AML/CFT. This is having a particularly big impact on medium and small firms who do not have the resource to cope. We will work with the Department of Internal Affairs to provide clarity to the profession as we near the end of our first year under this new regime.

Supporting the overall health and well-being of lawyers is a key priority. We need new and better funded ‘Practising Well’ initiatives, such as access to free counselling sessions for practitioners who are struggling, a separate stand-alone well-being unit or committee and a suite of resources for lawyers who are supporting other lawyers.

Finally, we need to make some material advances on access to justice. There is a lot of academic research being undertaken and a recent triennial review of legal aid to which the Law Society provided comprehensive input. But we need to do more. We have an increasing number of lawyers declining to be providers of legal aid which is already affecting smaller regions. I want to see the Law Society drawing on all the work being done in this area and driving initiatives which support changes to our justice system to ensure people who are affected by legal problems can access legal assistance. Justice is done when there is competent and resourced counsel on both sides.

How would you describe the state of New Zealand’s legal profession?

We clearly have work to do when it comes to behaviour and our workplace culture but the fact that 79% of the lawyers who responded to the workplace environment survey said that, ultimately, their job gave them an immense amount of satisfaction tells us the New Zealand legal profession is in better shape than perhaps we think. We are also considered more trustworthy by the public than lawyers in Australia. In a report on ‘The future of trust,’ carried out for Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) New Zealand lawyers were seen as trusted by 72% by the respondents. This compares rather favourably to the 61% of respondents who trusted Australian lawyers.

What is also positive is the high level of engagement from all parts of the profession. We have some fierce senior women lawyers and mana wahine who are driving for change. Young lawyers have taken a particularly keen interest in what is happening, are future focused and are wanting to be involved in finding the solutions. I have also been impressed with the number of senior male lawyers who are stepping up to champion change. We have the highest level of engagement by the profession I have ever known in my almost 20 years of practice. I take a lot of pride and hope from the fact that everywhere you look there are lawyers from all backgrounds wanting to be involved. Despite all the change occurring, I think the profession is strong and resilient enough to come through to the other side.

In 2019, what does being a lawyer mean for you?

For those of us in senior positions, it means going back to the reason you became a lawyer in the first place and drawing on our core ethics. Most, if not all, of us became lawyers to be of service to the community, do something good and to make a positive impact. It is about remembering that it is a privilege to be a lawyer and with that comes obligations and responsibilities. We take an oath to be admitted into practice and we need to remember that.

I read something the other day which said “if your dream does not include others, you are not dreaming big enough”. I think being a lawyer in 2019 is about looking at our individual place in the wider profession, and even Aotearoa, and asking ourselves “am I doing enough and being enough to fulfil the oath I took to become a lawyer?” It is ultimately about assisting clients and ensuring the law is fulfilling its purpose to provide fairness. But, we also belong to a cohort with a collective reputation to uphold. We all have our part to play in that.

I think it is also about having a holistic view to career progression and questioning the value which can be placed on things like status and wealth. I am not saying improving our own lives with financial stability and reward should never be part of joining the profession; I believe it should not be everything.

Personally, how are you preparing for the next three years?

I have given a great deal of thought over the last few months about what I can best do to help the profession progress. The challenges we faced in 2018 caused divisions. I believe an over-arching national mentoring scheme which supports existing programmes can help bring the profession together. It could also fill gaps in the profession and regions where lawyers do not have access to much support. All the research and anecdotal success stories highlight mentoring as a key component. Mentors often get as much out of the relationship as mentees, particularly in a reverse mentoring situation. I would like to see it made available to everyone in the profession, including admitted lawyers who have yet to find employment. I want to see mentoring sessions become CPD compliant if certain criteria are satisfied. Everyone wants to be involved and make an impact, so structured mentoring schemes run through the various branches of the Law Society is a way of bringing everyone together.

I have given away almost my entire criminal practice to ensure I can commit the time required to being President of the New Zealand Law Society. The demands of the role are maybe the greatest they have been. My President’s calendar is already filled up to August. As I said, the year 2019 is about delivering on all the work which was started in 2018. By the end of the year we will have a blue-print for culture change and the organisational capacity to act.

We then have 2020 and 2021 to keep delivering culture change and supporting the profession It is not a sprint, it’s a 1000-day marathon. So, I am keen to keep some balance and ensure I have down time at home in Gisborne with my family. And still have time to occasionally surf and go for a run on the beach.

On 10 April 2019 Tiana Epati becomes the 31st elected President of the New Zealand Law Society. She takes over from Kathryn Beck, who has completed three years as President. Kathryn and Tiana were asked to reflect on the role, the profession and their own situations.

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