Bending the arc
Three fraught, tumultuous, life-changing years have characterised the Presidency of Tiana Epati. As she exits from this leadership role, she urges the legal profession to keep its foot on the accelerator of change.
Barack Obama once spoke of being inspired by Nelson Mandela as a young college student on the other side of the world to follow an unconventional path, re-examine his own priorities, and consider the small role he might play “in bending the arc of the world towards justice.”
If the past three years as President have taught me anything, it’s been this: purpose is everything. For we as lawyers to understand the role we must play, we must scrape back the patina that coats our institution and look beneath. If need be, re-examine our own priorities, and change. And then change again.
I have learned that our purpose – the purpose of our entire profession – boils down to two elements: firstly, to protect and serve the community; secondly, to protect the rule of law.
Thus, reflecting on these three, fraught, tumultuous, life-changing and wonderful years I have had as President, I find I have this to say about our purpose.
We faced the consequences of the #MeToo movement, soul searched and, most importantly, acted. In this we have been constrained by our own legislation and regulations which we have sought to determinedly address through the long slog and bureaucracy of statutory change.
We have put everything on the table. The Independent Review will be a comprehensive assessment of our structure, legislation, regulatory role and everything else. It will drill into our professional body’s true functionality and therefore into our profession’s fitness and efficacy.
We launched Access to Justice, and advocated for legal aid lawyers when few others, in the media and public arena, did. We’ve stood aghast at the 20,000 people turned away from legal aid last year – ordinary, fellow New Zealanders. We’ve sought a commitment from Government to address this.
We welcomed Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa and the Pacific Lawyers Association to form a much-needed partnership, so, so long delayed.
And throughout most of my Presidency, we have navigated through the perfect storm of Covid-19.
In those three years, almost imperceptibly, the waves of expectation surrounding the profession have advanced up the beach, setting a new tidemark. We have arrived at a new shoreline.
Now, it’s vital we preserve the high tide mark. It should not be our highest point of advancement. We must keep pushing up the beach.
Someone recently said to me (and I paraphrase): “There’s a new expectation of the legal profession and the President. Now, we don’t expect anything less. That’s the new business as usual, Tiana.”
Back in 2018, I entered the Presidency as a lawyer, amidst the turmoil and uproar of a profession under siege. Allegations about the behaviour of some lawyers had emerged and, as hard as it was, I saw this as the opportunity for change.
When I first joined the legal profession, it seemed impossible that a young Samoan woman, living in Tūranganui-a-Kiwa Gisborne, doing largely legal aid work, a mother of two young children, could become the President of the New Zealand Law Society. Yet you voted me in. I still feel deeply humbled and, frankly, astonished by that.
I have strived during my Presidency to bring purpose to our Society. I have been told it has given a new generation of young lawyers hope. They say to me: “You’re all I’ve ever known as President.”
Today there are law students who’ve done almost their entire degree while a first-generation immigrant, and woman of colour from the provinces, was the President.
Young lawyers have told me the symbolism of having this role filled by such a person cannot be under-estimated. Suddenly, all the maps change.
Still, there’s more, much more to do.
My transition from lawyer and litigator to legal politician began almost immediately the day I was voted as President. The role was much harder than I ever thought possible. It still is.
As Ursula Le Guin once said “what goes too long unchanged, destroys itself”
I saw straight away that relationships matter. As President, you must put hard work into building rapport with the profession, the Judiciary, and with government. Trust is vital, but you have to earn it. A president doesn’t start with a bank balance of confidence in them. There is no automatic privilege. She or he starts from zero. Sometimes less than zero, in a tumultuous time.
Amid this rapid education about the politics of presidency, my personal circumstances were thrown into chaos. In 2020, I became pregnant – a late, loved but unexpected baby. I had my third child in office, exactly at the half-way mark of my President term, and breast fed her for 15 months.
It was at this time I remember attending a full day hearing in Wairoa. Stuck with nowhere else to go, I spent the hour trying to locate an area and settling in the small tea-room off a hallway with my breast pump for companionship, then continued the entire day hungry, without food, as I cross examined witnesses. When finished, I drove tired and in tears, the one and half hours home to dinner.
Why is this part of my story important to the profession’s story?
It shows that despite everything we’ve achieved over three years and before, there’s still so much for the Law Society to achieve. The maternity wall is as real today as it was 20 years ago, when I first joined the profession. Why would a woman lawyer want to come back to work after childbirth, if we’re sent to the toilet or tea-room to breast pump without a sandwich? That experience was, and remains, humiliating – and eminently fixable.
Our professional body cannot take its foot off the pedal of change for a moment.
So much other work remains unfinished too. The racism and sexism that have haunted the profession, need removal like most scourges – in perpetuity and unwaveringly.
Recently, I opened an email. It said: “You front footed it, Tiana. You navigated the path. Now it’s on all of us. It’s up to us to walk the talk.”
So, as I hand over the reins – confident that the profession is sounder than when I found it, and at least pointed to its true North – the challenge is no longer with me. In fact, it never was.
It is seated most firmly with you – every lawyer who has taken an oath and is privileged to serve the people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
It is in your hands to pick up the rākau whakawaha – the stick that will clear the way.
As our motto says, “be just and fear not”. And, in doing so, bend the arc of the world towards justice.
My grateful thanks go to my entire village of friends and family. I also acknowledge the incredible work of my present Board. But special thanks goes to the original day one crew – Andrew Logan, Herman Visagie and Tim Jones – who supported me in my own becoming in the first place. I could not have done it without you three. And of course, my husband, Matanuku Mahuika. One of the finest and most decent human beings I have ever met. Thank you for always believing in me.