More than one thousand lawyers around Aotearoa New Zealand lend their expertise and time to the profession as volunteers to the Law Society. LawTalk shares the stories of three volunteers, one of whom has been volunteering for the best part of three decades. Their message is clear, “If you want to make a difference and maximise your influence, then get inside the tent.”
As we bid farewell to another year and prepare for the future, we acknowledge the hundreds of Law Society volunteers nationwide who tirelessly contribute their expertise, experience, time and energy to the daily running, governance and kaupapa of the Law Society.
You can easily spot the footprints of our volunteers participating in the crucial functions of the Law Society including: law reform, advocacy, complaint inquiries, practice approval, professional standards, mentoring, section and branch events, just to name a few.
LawTalk speaks to three volunteers for an insight into their unwavering commitment to the profession. While the motivation for setting out on a volunteering journey may vary, at the heart of each story is a passion for the profession and a willingness to serve.
Get inside the tent
“If you want to influence issues affecting the profession, you need to participate,” Auckland sole practitioner Sue Styants says.
Sue became involved with the Auckland District Law Society in the mid-1990s with a determination to get involved and not just be a bystander, but to ‘get stuck in’. As a lawyer in Papakura, Sue also recognised the need to have a voice for suburban practitioners.
Sue’s dedication and commitment stood for the next 28 years and saw her serve on the New Zealand Law Society Board and multiple committees. Most recently, she was a member of the National Standards Committee between 2009 and 2017, and was a member of the Auckland Branch Council between 2015 and 2023.
Branch Councils represent the interests of local Law Society members, promote collegiality through social, learning, and networking events, and assist with the delivery of a range of wellbeing and support services and activities. An important part of our regulatory function, the Standards Committees are the first formal decision makers for complaints about lawyers.
For Anna Fuiava, Associate at Denham Bramwell and a member of the Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee since 2017, it was simply the right opportunity at the right time.
“I was at a stage of my career where I was keen to volunteer on committees for both my professional development and personal interest. It must have coincided with the law reform committees’ renewal cycle. I’m a legal aid lawyer so I’ve always been interested in legal advocacy,” Anna says.
The Access to Justice committee monitors proposals that affect access to justice; in particular, the operation of the legal aid system, advocating on behalf of lawyers and their clients to ensure access to justice for New Zealanders. It’s one of 17 law reform committees that assist in drafting and reviewing the Law Society’s submissions on bills and discussion papers, and advocating for improvements across the law.
Similar to Anna, Hamilton sole practitioner Truman Wee was also a keen seeker of volunteer experiences. He started his journey as a Library Committee Member almost at the same time as Sue before the merger of the District Law Societies.
Truman is now the acting convenor of one of the two Practice Approval Committees who assess registry related applications, such as practise on own account, handling of trust money, Certificates of Character for admission, and matters relating to practice issues. Their role is to protect the quality and ethical standards of the legal profession.
“I used to work in a firm where we were encouraged to get involved in voluntary positions, so it helped. I always feel that if you are part of a profession, you need to give something back.
“Yes, it’s a commitment and sometimes it does mean that you’re not able to watch your favourite Netflix series on the weekend. It’s a decent amount of work to carefully go through hundreds of pages of application material, but you must remind yourself that there’s someone behind every application, and our decision is going to affect their future livelihood,” Truman says.
Seeing the bigger picture
A strong link that joins the volunteer stories is the opportunity to branch out and see the bigger picture of the profession by being involved with the Law Society.
This has been a particularly important aspect for Anna as the Access to Justice Committee is a platform for her to provide an insider’s view on legal aid – an issue that is close to her heart.
“We’re often caught up in our client files and become very focused on the problems in front of us. Joining the committee gives me a direct line to legal aid so I can have a voice on practical and on-the-ground issues.
“Furthermore, it allows me to step back to look at the profession as a whole in the wider society, making sure we are serving the people that we’re there to serve the best we can,” Anna says.
Sue found her Law Society involvement extremely valuable as it broadened her legal landscape.
“I will always be grateful for my time at the Law Society as it expanded my horizons and took me out of my comfort zone. It also gave me the opportunity to view things from a governance perspective.
“My daily work at the coalface was extremely helpful during my nine-year involvement with the National Standards Committee,” she says.
In the past fifteen years, Truman has assessed countless applications of practise on own account as well as practising certificate applications and annual renewals from those who have declared a serious issue, such as a criminal conviction, insolvency issue, or disciplinary issue. He couldn’t be more familiar with the standards that the profession collectively upholds.
“To be able to make a sound and fair judgment on an application, we need to consider the potential risks to the public and the implications of our decisions on the profession. It has certainly broadened my view as to how I operate my own practice and made me a more careful and vigilant practitioner,” Truman says.
Camaraderie and a common purpose
When asked what motivates these volunteers to continue their work with the Law Society whilst juggling their own work, family and life, a key factor to keep going was the camaraderie of their volunteer colleagues.
“When you’ve been talking to someone on a monthly basis, apart from January each year, and get on well, your working relationship naturally develops into friendships creating a wonderful bond. Camaraderie and collegiality are what our profession is about,” Truman says. He laughs that they would joke with each other, saying “If you leave the committee, I leave, too!”
A mother of two children, Anna admits that she is an “over-committer” but being on the Access to Justice committee is well worth the time and effort.
“I found the benefits of meeting other practitioners, and together advocating for legal aid and the people using the services from behind the scenes much outweighed any time commitment and worries that I had.
“The Law Society’s Law Reform team has been a huge assistance, summarising all the pieces of work we need to comment on, and guiding us through the burden-free collaboration process. The encouragement from our committee convenor Liz Bulger has also led to my continuous involvement,” Anna says.
For many practitioners, building connections and networks outside of their own practice can be a challenge. As Sue approaches retirement in March 2024, there is no doubt in her mind about the importance of a supportive network in shaping a successful legal career, and how volunteering can be a great way to facilitate that.
While serving as a Council member of the Auckland District Law Society, Sue was closely involved in the reform process which led to the restructure of the New Zealand Law Society.
“There was around 10 years of toing and froing, finally leading to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 and the establishment of the restructured Law Society. A lot of volunteer time and energy was invested by so many in the profession to achieve this outcome.
“There is a place for everyone in the profession to become involved in Law Society affairs and make a contribution. If you are not happy with an issue, why not get inside the tent, see it for yourself and get involved?”
“Throughout I was privileged to work with the then Law Society’s President, the late Ian Haynes, who was pivotal in this process and from that, a close and valued collegial relationship developed.
“Over the years, I was very fortunate to meet and be influenced by so many colleagues like Ian that I would not otherwise have encountered in my suburban legal practice,” Sue says.
Do it for the right reason and give it a go
To people who may be interested in contributing their expertise on important issues facing the profession, the message from the three Law Society volunteers is loud and clear – give it a go!
As Sue reflects on a career spanning more than four decades, her time with the Law Society has been a highlight and invaluable. “There is a place for everyone in the profession to become involved in Law Society affairs and make a contribution. If you are not happy with an issue, why not get inside the tent, see it for yourself and get involved?”
Anna says that each law reform committee has now set aside a new seat for lawyers with 3-5 years PQE. “We all have something unique to contribute even if you’re relatively new to the profession. If volunteering is crossing your mind, it might be worth pursuing – don’t shy away from coming forward.”
As a first-generation immigrant, Truman encourages practitioners from diverse ethnic backgrounds to not be afraid to put themselves out there. He says, “If you decide to do it, do it for the right reason.”
“The work of the Practice Approval Committee is demanding and time-consuming but satisfying at the same time. If your motivation is to serve, you don’t think much about what you’ll get in return.
“I’m hoping that my journey would inspire Asians or those with other ethnic backgrounds to step out and know that they can also work their way up to be here if they wish.
“I didn’t set out deliberately to volunteer for this purpose, but if my story would help others to see more possibilities within themselves, I’ll keep going,” he says.
Truman adds, “Don’t be too concerned about what people think of you. Who you are and what you can contribute are all that matters.”
Keen to explore volunteer opportunities at the Law Society?