New Zealand Law Society - Law wins the career battle

Law wins the career battle

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Growing up in the small villages of Magiagi and Vaiusu near Samoa's capital, Apia, Wellington criminal defence lawyer, Ken Ah Kuoi says he never dreamt he would one day be practising law in New Zealand's bustling capital.

Ken Ah Kuoi grew up in a family with strong roots in the Catholic and Methodist churches and figured he would most likely follow a similar path to three of his siblings by becoming a religious Minister.

But as Samoan was his native language, Mr Ah Kuoi desperately wanted to speak fluent English, and at that stage had his sights set on becoming a school teacher.

photo of Ken Ah Kuoi

"I came to New Zealand to complete my final year in secondary school in the middle of winter in 1984," he says.

And he says the transition from the tropical climate of Samoa to the chilling southerlies of Wellington proved to be far from a deterrent.

"It was absolutely cold. I had to wear two pairs of trousers and four jerseys to school. I was lucky because we were able to wear mufti at that time when I went to Porirua College," he says.

After wrapping up secondary school, Mr Ah Kuoi enrolled at Victoria University in 1985 to study a Bachelor of Science which he completed in 1988, along with a Diploma of Teaching.

"Fortunately I got a job straight away in 1989 teaching back at Porirua College which lasted six years.

First trade

"It was my first trade, and I eventually became an Education Review Officer. I didn't like working in that role as an officer, because I was giving the same old advice.

"Plastic is what I'd call that job as I was never actually in the classroom, then the opportunity came to study law and I've never looked back," he says.

While Mr Ah Kuoi's hunger for a new career was strong, it took a decade working in education before the chance to study law fell on to his lap.

"I was on holiday leave at the time and did Summer School at Victoria University, from November 2002 until January 2003.

"That was the last time Victoria University had a Summer Law 101 programme. I got in and decided to quit my job as an Education Review Officer.

"My employer was not very happy with my decision," he says.

And so the law had finally won the career battle and had lured him in to doing further classroom study, at Victoria University, where he gained his law degree.

At 41 years old, Mr Ah Kuoi was admitted in 2006.

"It would be fair to say, I was a 'mature' student – it was my second life," he says.

Mr Ah Kuoi says the skills he uses as a criminal defence lawyer are actually quite similar to teaching.

Transferable skills

"They were transferable. In teaching education I was helping people learn and as a lawyer, I'm trying to help people understand the law and prevent them from breaking it," he says.

Mr Ah Kuoi's plan was simple. He wanted to do mostly criminal defence work, with a strong focus on representing Samoan and other Pacific Island people.

"Mainly Samoans because I speak fluent Samoan and my clients feel comfortable if they have somebody on their side that can speak their language," he says.

Mr Ah Kuoi says it is a unique position to be in, as he will often speak Samoan to clients while in court which he says can ease their fears.

"It's my first language so I have that advantage and I feel it when I'm in the courtroom," he says.

He says he is able to connect better with Samoan clients by drawing from his culture and the protocol that surrounds it.

"I must acknowledge their presence in a cultural way. That's the sense of context I want to bring to the law, accepting people as they are, and their status within the Samoan culture," he says.

Sadly, he says, the majority of his work has a common theme and familiar ring to it – domestic violence, including parents and guardians physically assaulting their children.

Hurdles to overcome

There are hurdles to overcome and being Samoan isn't a guaranteed ticket to getting clients to co-operate.

Privacy, pride and shame are all part of the Samoan culture and Samoan people will sometimes close down emotionally to protect themselves from a further fall.

"It's not easy. Samoa is a small country and sometimes I can be at court and some Samoan clients just won't speak to me. They know who I am, there'll be extended family there and they don't want me to know their problems. I have to be very sensitive," he says.

He does not do any legal aid work and often his clients cannot afford to pay for his representation.

"I'm not wealthy. It's a misconception that lawyers are all rich," he says.

There's more to Mr Ah Kuoi than being a lawman, running from case to case.

He is also a passionate rugby fan, quick with a ball in hand, and still playing at 51 years old.

"I play fullback too. I even played for the Wellington Lawyers rugby team that took on the French lawyer's team – the Paris Bar Association [played in Wellington] during the 2011 Rugby World Cup."

He is also the chair of the Wellington Samoa Rugby Union, a position he has held over the past four years.

"Rugby is the national sport for Samoa too and we work alongside the Wellington Rugby Football Union to provide opportunities for Samoan players in the capital.

Mr Ah Kuoi says he has managed to stay in the game because at fullback he is the last defence, and doesn't get hit by crushing tackles by the opposition too often.

"I'm also the last line of defence, so everybody else usually does the tackling unless they miss. The main thing for me is playing and training for fitness and health. Living a healthy life is important to me, as is eating and drinking responsibly," he says.

Before becoming a sole practitioner in law about one year ago, Mr Ah Kuoi worked for Strachan O'Connor for eight years.

He has plenty of solid advice for young Pacific Islanders considering a career in law.

"Hard work, whether you think you're bright or not. If you follow something with your heart, you'll get it. It was really hard at law school. I was one of the only Samoans in my classes, but there's no excuse for hard work, you have to do it, if you want something badly," he says.

Mr Ah Kuoi also practises family law, immigration, and conveyancing and property law.

He has a partner who is also a lawyer and they have two teenage sons.

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