New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer ethnicity differs from New Zealand population

Lawyer ethnicity differs from New Zealand population

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This is the first of two articles looking at the ethnic makeup of New Zealand’s legal profession and the issues which are raised. This month LawTalk looks at the statistics relating to some of the different elements of legal practice.

New Zealand’s legal profession is out of kilter with the wider New Zealand population in terms of ethnicity, but there are indications that things are changing. The ethnic makeup of recently admitted lawyers and those who will become lawyers in the next few years is much closer to that of New Zealand’s working age population.

At 30 June 2018, however, over 85% of lawyers located in New Zealand were of European ethnicity, compared to 74% of New Zealanders of working age. Representation of the other main ethnic groups in the legal profession is well below the national situation.

The New Zealand Law Society has required practising lawyers to provide information on their ethnicity since 2017, with lawyers given the option of refusing to disclose. This has resulted in comprehensive information, and over 95% of practising lawyers have contributed details of their ethnicity. Analysis of the resulting information shows some noticeable differences between lawyers of different ethnicities, plus some warning signals when it comes to matters such as law firm leadership and lawyer location.

The information provided in this analysis is not intended to develop stereotypes. Instead, it has the objective of providing a picture of the similarities and differences between the lawyers of different ethnicities who make up the New Zealand legal profession. As Statistics New Zealand states, ethnicity is self-perceived and people can identify with more than one ethnicity. In the legal profession, for example, 501 lawyers identify as both Māori and New Zealand European. The ethnic shares in the information presented add up to over 100%.

For the purposes of this summary, information on the five Statistics New Zealand ethnicity categories will be shown, along with the four single most-common ethnicities. People of Māori ethnicity are, of course, included in the five Statistics New Zealand categories. The “European” category only includes all other options where indicated.

The overall picture

Lawyers are asked to select from 18 different ethnicity options, including the option not to state ethnicity. There is wide variance between ethnicities in the proportion of lawyers who are female, with women dominating in most ethnicities except the one with most, NZ European. To ensure privacy, separate information has not been provided for ethnicities with fewer than 30 individuals.

Ethnicity of New Zealand lawyers, 30 June 2018

Ethnicity Female Male Total % NZ Total % Female
African 14 27 41 0.3% 34.1%
Chinese 247 182 429 3.2% 57.6%
Cook Island Māori 23 12 35 0.3% 65.7%
Fijian 39 34 73 0.5% 53.4%
Indian 175 128 303 2.3% 57.8%
Māori 489 331 820 6.1% 59.6%
Middle Eastern 29 18 47 0.4% 61.7%
NZ European 5178 5223 10401 77.9% 49.8%
Not Stated 269 353 622 4.7% 43.2%
Other Asian 137 95 232 1.7% 59.1%
Other 93 85 178 1.3% 52.2%
Other European 409 369 778 5.8% 52.6%
Other Pacific Peoples 21 25 46 0.3% 45.7%
Samoan 117 65 182 1.4% 64.3%
SE Asian 75 56 131 1.0% 57.3%
Tongan 20 21 41 0.3% 48.8%
Blank 25 22 47 0.4% 53.2%
All New Zealand 6739 6613 13352   50.5%

Lawyers are almost invariably aged at least 22 by the time they start practice, but the most accessible national ethnicity data is that for the usually resident New Zealand population aged 15 and over. This is based on the 2013 census and therefore does not necessarily reflect the current situation. However, it provides a clear illustration of the ethnic differences between lawyers and the whole New Zealand workforce.

Lawyers compared to working age population

Ethnicity Lawyers % Lawyers selecting New Zealand % New Zealand
European or Other 11344 85.0% 2,860,500 74.0%
Asian 1095 8.2% 529,500 13.7%
Māori 820 6.1% 495,100 12.8%
Pacific 377 2.8% 248,800 6.4%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 101 0.8% 49,300 1.3%

*The New Zealand information is taken from the Household Labour Force survey, March 2018 quarter.

Time in practice

Information on lawyer ethnicity in past years is elusive, but it would be a fair assumption that the proportion of lawyers of European ethnicity would have been close to 100% fifty years ago (see “Some trailblazers” on page 74). This appears to be reflected in the average time spent in practice by lawyers, with a number of years difference between European ethnicities and others.

Average time since admission

Ethnicity Time
European 18 years 7 months
Pacific 13 years 9 months
Māori 13 years 0 months
Asian 11 years 5 months
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 6 years 10 months
All lawyers 17 years 8 months
NZ European 19 years 0 months
Samoan 13 years 5 months
Indian 13 years 0 months
Chinese 12 years 5 months

Time since admission

Change is coming, with much higher proportions of all ethnicities except European having been in practice for five years or less: one-third of Asian lawyers, nearly a third of Māori lawyers and a quarter of Pacific lawyers. At the other end, a much higher proportion of European practitioners – 9.0% – have been in practice for 40 years or more. Indeed, 92% of those in the 40-plus range are of NZ European ethnicity, compared with 67% of those in practice for a year and 71% of those in practice for 5 years or less.

Time since admission: Proportion of each ethnicity

Ethnicity 1 year 2 years 5 years 40 years
Asian 8.4% 16.0% 33.9% 1.4%
European 4.1% 8.9% 19.1% 9.0%
Māori 5.0% 12.7% 29.0% 2.0%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 10.6% 19.1% 56.4% 0.0%
Pacific 4.6% 12.2% 25.5% 1.2%
All lawyers 4.7% 9.8% 21.0% 7.9%
Chinese 7.7% 14.7% 32.2% 3.2%
Indian 7.3% 13.5% 29.0% 2.0%
NZ European 4.0% 8.7% 19.1% 9.3%
Samoan 5.5% 11.5% 24.7% 0.0%

Type of practice

There are noticeable differences when it comes to the type of practice. Lawyers from Pacific ethnicities are most likely to be barristers, followed by Māori lawyers. Pacific lawyers are also most likely to work in-house. Asian lawyers are most likely to work in firms with more than one lawyer.

Proportion of lawyers engaged in different types of practice

Ethnicity Barrister In-house Multi-lawyer firm Sole practice
Asian 5.1% 20.8% 67.1% 7.0%
European 10.8% 22.5% 59.2% 7.5%
Māori 12.1% 22.4% 60.0% 5.5%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 8.5% 23.4% 64.9% 3.2%
Pacific 17.1% 27.5% 47.6% 7.8%
All lawyers 10.6% 22.7% 59.0% 7.7%
Chinese 4.7% 18.4% 71.8% 5.1%
Indian 6.6% 23.8% 57.7% 11.9%
NZ European 10.7% 22.3% 59.4% 7.6%
Samoan 15.9% 26.4% 50.6% 7.1%

Partnership and Directorship

There are noticeable differences between ethnicities when it comes to lawyers who are partners and directors in law firms with more than one lawyer. Overall, 59% of New Zealand’s lawyers work in law firms with more than one lawyer, and 37.2% of lawyers in those firms are partners or directors. However, when the ethnicity of partners and directors is considered lawyers from non-European ethnicities are far less likely to be partners or directors.

Some of this can be explained by the relatively long time it takes to move to partner or director. The average time since admission for partners and directors is 24 years and 8 months, with just 227 (7.9%) of partners and directors admitted within the last 10 years. Of those 227, 14.5% are of Asian ethnicity, 7.5% of Māori ethnicity, 1.8% of Pacific ethnicity, and 0.9% of Middle Eastern/Latin American/African ethnicity. The remaining 75.3% are of European ethnicity.

The information below shows the proportion of lawyers of different ethnicities working in law firms with more than one lawyer who are partners or directors.

Multi-lawyer firms: Proportion who are partners or directors

Ethnicity Proportion who are partners/directors
European and other 39.8%
Māori 27.8%
Asian 23.6%
Pacific 21.3%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 15.0%
All lawyers 37.2%
Chinese 29.1%
NZ European 40.1%
Indian 26.2%
Samoan 19.3%


As well as being the largest, Auckland is the most ethnically diverse of New Zealand’s population centres. It is also the most ethnically diverse when it comes to lawyers – 12.5% of lawyers in Auckland are of Asian ethnicity, compared to 8.2% of all New Zealand lawyers. Asian and Pacific lawyers are noticeably rare in the South Island.

Proportion who work in Auckland Council area

Ethnicity % of NZ Total in Auckland % of Auckland lawyers
Asian 68.7% 12.5%
European 39.9% 77.0%
Māori 34.3% 4.9%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 54.3% 0.9%
Pacific 67.2% 4.0%
All lawyers 43.0% 100.0%
Chinese 70.9% 5.3%
Indian 66.3% 3.5%
NZ European 39.4% 71.4%
Samoan 72.5% 2.3%

Proportion working in the South Island

Ethnicity % of total in the South Island
European 18.1%
Middle Eastern/Latin American/African 14.9%
Māori 14.3%
Asian 7.0%
Pacific 5.0%
All lawyers 17.0%
NZ European 18.7%
Chinese 7.0%
Indian 4.6%
Samoan 4.9%

Areas of practice

While not all lawyers give information on the areas of law in which they practise, the information provided shows some differences between ethnicities. A higher proportion of Asian lawyers practise some property law and company law, while Pacific lawyers are more likely to practise criminal law and family law. The following are the four areas of law in which the highest proportion of each ethnicity say they do some work:

Asian: Company (54.6%), Property (51.6%), Trusts (41.0%), Family (35.5%).

European: Company (53.1%), Property (44.8%), Civil litigation (38.9%), Trusts (38.5%).

Māori: Company (41.3%), Property (38.4%), Civil litigation (37.1%), Criminal (36.2%).

Middle Eastern/Latin American/African: Company (49.2%), Property (40.0%), Trusts (35.4%), Civil litigation (35.4%).

Pacific: Family (45.8%), Criminal (39.4%), Employment (30.3%), Company (28.5%).

Chinese: Company (67.8%), Property (60.5%), Trusts (47.8%), Family (36.2%).

Indian: Company (51.5%), Property (48.0%), Family (43.1%), Trusts (40.7%).

NZ European: Company (55.1%), Property (48.0%), Family (43.1%), Civil litigation (40.7%).

Samoan: Family (51.5%), Criminal (49.2%), Employment (32.3%), Property (25.4%).

Entry to the legal profession

Those are some of the features of practising lawyers. What about those people who are going to become lawyers in the next few years?

Ministry of Education statistics from April 2018 show that there were 14,885 domestic students enrolled in law bachelor degrees in 2017 and 900 enrolled in honours and postgraduate certificates/diplomas. Combining these shows that higher proportions of students of non-European ethnicity could be entering the profession within the next five years:

Domestic students enrolled in LLB and LLB(Hons) degrees in 2017

Ethnicity Students % Total
European 10370 65.7%
Asian 3705 23.5%
Māori 1835 11.6%
Pacific 1445 9.2%
Other 720 4.6%
Total 15,785  

Domestic students completing LLB and LLB(Hons) degrees in 2017

Ministry of Education statistics show 1,220 domestic students completed a bachelors degree in law during 2017 and 245 completed honours degrees and postgraduate certificates and diplomas in law. Combining these shows that students able to enter the profession in 2018 were of the following ethnicities:

Domestic students completing LLB and LLB(Hons) degrees in 2017

Ethnicity Students % Total
European 1060 72.4%
Asian 285 19.5%
Māori 145 9.9%
Pacific 90 6.1%
Other 45 3.1%
Total 1465  

As an indicator, the Ministry of Education statistics show that during 2017, 24,700 students completed a bachelors degree, of whom 70.6% were of European ethnicity, 17.0% Asian ethnicity, 13.1% Māori ethnicity, 7.3% Pacific ethnicity and 4.9% Other ethnicity. This would seem to indicate that a slightly higher proportion of European and Asian students choose to study law than Māori or Pacific students (treating LLB(Hons) as a first degree).


The Ministry of Education has confirmed that its statistics for students completing “graduate certificates and diplomas” in law are those completing the legal professionals courses, which are required for admission to practise law in New Zealand. Statistics show that almost one-fifth of people just an admission away from becoming lawyers were of Asian ethnicity and almost 10% of Māori ethnicity – both up on the current proportions of practising lawyers. The ethnic make-up of the profession is changing.

Students completing Legal Professionals course in 2017

Ethnicity Students % Total
European 785 71.0%
Asian 220 19.9%
Māori 105 9.5%
Pacific 70 6.3%
Other 40 3.6%
Total 1105  

Towards a more diverse profession: Some trailblazers

1840: English solicitor Richard Davies Hanson arrives at Wellington on 3 January, the first qualified European lawyer in New Zealand.

1842: English solicitor William Martin (later Sir William) is sworn in on 10 January as the first Chief Justice.

Sir Apirana Ngata
1897: Apirana Turupa Ngata

1897: On 26 March Apirana Turupa Ngata (later Sir Apirana) is the first Māori to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.

On 10 May Ethel Benjamin becomes the first European woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.

1923: In July Harold Herbert Carr is appointed to the bench of the Native (later Māori) Land Court, the first Māori to be appointed a judicial officer.

1924: Henry Ah Kew is the first person of Chinese ethnicity to obtain an LLB and to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.

1950: Lalbhai Patel is the first person of Indian ethnicity to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.

1970: In June Ken Mason is sworn in, becoming the first Māori to be appointed a Stipendiary Magistrate (and later District Court Judge until his retirement in 1988).

1972: Georgina te Heuheu (later Dame Georgina) is the first Māori woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor.

1974: Edward Durie (later Sir Edward) is the first Māori to be appointed a Judge of the Māori Land Court.

1979: Mary Finau Tuilotolava is admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 9 February, the first Tongan and Pacific woman to be admitted.

1980: Edward Durie is the first Māori to be appointed Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court.

1981: Avinash Ganesh Deobhakta is sworn in in April as a District Court Judge, the first judge to be appointed of Indian ethnicity.

1987: Margaret Lee is sworn in as a District Court Judge on 29 May, the first judge to be appointed of Chinese ethnicity.

1988: Lowell Goddard (later Dame Lowell) is appointed Queen’s Counsel on 4 March, the first Māori woman and (with Sian Elias) the first New Zealand woman appointed QC.

1995: Lowell Goddard is sworn in as a High Court Judge in December, becoming the first Māori woman appointed to the High Court bench.

Judge Soana Moala
2016: Soana Moala

1998: Edward Durie is sworn in as a High Court Judge in October, becoming the first Māori man appointed to the High Court bench.

1999: Josephine Kim is admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 17 December, the first Korean woman to be admitted in New Zealand.

2000: Caren Wickliffe is the first Māori woman appointed a Judge of the Māori Land Court.

2001: Denise Clark is sworn in as a District Court Judge on Tematekapua Marae in Rotorua on 2 October. She is the first Māori woman appointed as a District Court Judge and it is also the first time a judge has been admitted to the bench in a ceremony held on a marae.

2002: A’e’au Semikueiva Epati is sworn in as a District Court Judge on 22 February, the first judge to be appointed of Samoan and Pacific ethnicity.

Ida Malosi is sworn in as a Family Court Judge on 24 September, the first Samoan and Pacific Island woman. In 2013 she becomes the first woman judge to preside in the Supreme Court of Samoa.

2002: Ajit Swaran Singh is sworn in as a District Court Judge on 4 November. He is the first Fiji-born Indian to be appointed to the District Court bench.

2016: On 1 June Mina Wharepouri is sworn in as a District Court Judge and becomes the first Tongan-born Judge.

On 2 September Soana Moala is sworn in as a District Court Judge, becoming the first Tongan woman appointed to the bench.

This is the result of our research and all care has been taken not to miss anyone. Please send any additions or comments to

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