New Zealand Law Society - The continuing quest for knowledge

The continuing quest for knowledge

The continuing quest for knowledge
Yasmin Olsen and Jessie Fenton

LawTalk profiles the office of Kayes Fletcher Walker in Auckland’s Manukau and charts the journey of six lawyers from one firm who have embarked on higher learning at some of the world’s most prestigious law schools.

Ko te manu e kai ana i te miro nōna te ngahere.

Ko te manu e kai ana i te mātauranga, nōna te ao.

The bird that eats the miro berry owns the forest.

The bird that feasts on knowledge owns the world.

Continuing the quest toward higher learning has seen six lawyers working in South Auckland reaching beyond the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand and landing at the most prestigious law schools in the world.

Having all six candidates from the Office of the Manukau Crown Solicitor | Te Tari o Te Rōia Matua a Te Karauna ki Manukau is little short of extraordinary. Director Natalie Walker explains that the COVID-19 hiatus offered an opportunity for some of her staff to engage in further studies. This started in 2022, when three of the firm’s solicitors undertook year-long full immersion te reo Māori courses in Tāmaki and Ōtaki. This year, six solicitors have travelled to the northern hemisphere to complete postgraduate studies in law. While Kayes Fletcher Walker could arguably be considered an exceptional incubator of legal talent, Natalie is quick to point out that the publicly important nature of the work the firm is responsible for tends to attract lawyers who are intelligent, imaginative, hard-working and public-minded. Taking time out to study is not unusual and is something the firm encourages.

Natalie Walker, Partner at Kayes Fletcher Walker

“While we are sad to lose six talented lawyers from our team, especially all in one year thanks to COVID-19, the time was right for them to head north and further their legal education. We are very proud that these young lawyers can go from representing the Crown and our community in the South Auckland courts, to representing their country in some of the best universities in the world. Their international cohorts are lucky to have them, and will no doubt learn much from the insights and experiences that they bring with them from home,” says Natalie.

While the world is a big place, it is made a lot smaller when you can tread the hallowed halls of the great universities with your Kiwi colleagues. Freddy Faull, Tom Riley and Sam Becroft each secured places at the University of Cambridge in England; Freddy at Queen’s College studying for an LLM, Tom at Trinity Hall pursuing a Master of Philosophy and Criminology, and Sam at Gonville & Caius College, also studying for an LLM, with the support of a William Georgetti scholarship.

Stateside, James (Jimmy) Toebes, Jessie Fenton and Yasmin Olsen each secured the support of scholarships to advance their legal studies at New York University and Yale University, respectively.

A recipient of the NYU Deans Graduate Award and a Fullbright New Zealand Scholar graduate, James is also enrolled in an LLM degree.

Yasmin’s Yale Story

Yasmin Olsen (Ngāpuhi (Te Ihutai), Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāti Tīpā) is the recipient of a Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Graduate Award. Yasmin also received generous support through a Borrin Foundation-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Postgraduate Scholarship, launched in 2021, as well as a William Georgetti Scholarship and support from the Yvonne Smith Charitable Trust. At Yale Law School, Yasmin is pursuing a one-year LLM course with a focus on criminal justice reform and the law and indigenous peoples.

The reciprocity of knowledge and experience has been a standout feature of the Yale experience for Yasmin, who has been welcomed by the Native American Law Students Association and has had the opportunity to learn about pressing issues facing indigenous peoples in the United States through her coursework. In her criminal law courses, Yasmin is grateful for her experience working in the criminal justice system, which enables her to bring practical insights to class discussion, where many classmates haven’t yet practised as lawyers or have come from academic backgrounds.

Yasmin Olsen and Jessie Fenton

Yasmin says, “The chance to gain insight into other jurisdictions and cultures, such as the way tribal courts operate in the United States, has been a real eye opener.” Yasmin’s research interests build on calls for transformative criminal justice reform by Ināia Tonu Nei and Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, with a particular focus on how the criminal justice system can better serve wāhine Māori, who are overrepresented as both victims and offenders. “I hope to return home with fresh ideas from observing how things work in a different context,” Yasmin says.

“The opportunity to be learning again is such a privilege. With a bit of space and distance from the everyday practice of law, I’ve been able to see things from a different perspective. I’ve already started to question some of the assumptions and beliefs I had about what is and isn’t possible. At the same time, I’m constantly reminded of the really positive and exciting things that are happening at home – like the growing role of tikanga and te reo Māori in the law. And many of my classmates here are really interested in that.”

In crediting the generous support of her scholarship foundations for making her postgraduate studies possible, Yasmin is also quick to credit the support of Natalie Walker and the KFW team in South Auckland. “There are just 27 students engaged in the LLM course from all over the world – and two of us worked in the same firm in South Auckland, which is an awesome reflection on KFW and the way it supports and nurtures its lawyers.” Of her five-and-a-half years working at KFW, Yasmin says, “I was really lucky to work in an office with someone like Natalie as a role model. Being surrounded by forward-thinking colleagues and leaders who are open to doing things differently in order to better serve the community was really inspiring.”

“With a bit of space and distance from the everyday practice of law, I’ve been able to see things from a different perspective. I’ve already started to question some of the assumptions and beliefs I had about what is and isn’t possible”

And for readers of this story who might be wondering if such an experience could ever be a possibility for them, Yasmin has this to say: “Don’t rule yourself out as not being the right kind of person for a particular job or opportunity. There are many different ways to be an advocate in the profession and you can bring yourself and your background to your role. And there’s so much value having a range of voices from diverse backgrounds in legal workplaces and learning institutions.”

Jessie’s Yale story

Joining Yasmin at Yale Law School is fellow KFW prosecutor and now LLM candidate, Jessie Fenton. Jessie is the recipient of the 2023 New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarship. This scholarship supports women undertaking postgraduate research in law. The scholarship honours its founder and New Zealand’s first female barrister and solicitor, Ethel Benjamin, who was admitted to the bar in 1897.

Jessie’s studies will focus on the intersection of criminal law, indigenous rights, and constitutional reform, together with upholding the spirit and goals of the scholarship in advancing matters pertinent to women and the law.

Like Yasmin, Jessie has also found being immersed in a very different political and judicial system interesting and challenging. She has learned a lot not only about America, but also about the things she took for granted in New Zealand – like finding herself explaining to her classmates why she is trying to learn te reo despite not being Māori. She considers this new perspective on Aotearoa is just as valuable as her newfound understanding of the American system.

Postgraduate students on campus at Yale Law School

Jessie is also hoping to continue her work in the slam poetry world while at Yale. While some may think of poetry and the law as unlikely bedfellows, Jessie has been passionate about poetry since her student days, and it remains a strong part of her Auckland life, where Jessie is a two-time New Zealand national slam poetry finalist, and a board member of the Auckland regional slam poetry organisation. She has already performed as part of a show at the Yale Schwarzman Centre and is hoping to attend more poetry events in nearby New York City. Asked more about how poetry and the law come together, Jessie observes that “while people often think of law as a science, it’s just as much of a creative endeavour. I think a good lawyer needs the same skillset as a good poet: a strong imagination, and an ability to take complicated ideas and articulate them in plain, simple language.”

“While people often think of law as a science, it’s just as much of a creative endeavour. I think a good lawyer needs the same skillset as a good poet"

Jessie is looking to return to Aotearoa New Zealand with a kete full of fresh thinking and a newly minted LLM, together with a deep appreciation for the opportunities she experienced at Yale. An important element of creating the path to higher learning was the encouragement Jessie received from Natalie Walker and the KFW whānau, which she describes as a place with “a very special culture, full of intelligent, empathetic, and resilient people, and committed to helping young lawyers reach their potential.”