New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Rapua te ara tika mōu ake — seek the pathway that is right for you

29 November 2019 - By Alice Anderson

I contacted Sarah Taylor because I am an avid reader of the Talking about mental health series. I am a relatively fresh wahine Māori rōia, in my third year of practising. I have, however, seen quite a lot in my time. I have seen the devastation that the law can bring, both to those within it, and those seeking (or being forced) to rely on it. While many of these particular experiences are not my stories to tell, they have certainly coloured my view of the world and how I choose to practise.

I have also experienced many positive aspects of the law. I have a village of support that I have been able to share experiences with, celebrate with, and call on in times of need. I have been exposed to interesting and challenging legal work that has brought with it some losses but also great successes.

As Sarah and I discussed the possibility of me contributing to this series, I started to question myself – what value could I bring to this conversation? I had to think really hard about this. The impacts of poor mental health on Māori are controversial and there is a lot of kōrero, whakaaro and mahi being shared in this space.

Ultimately, I decided that the only thing I could truly and honestly bring to the table is my own perspective. So what follows is just from me. People may not like it or agree with it. Hei aha, kei te pai.

Balancing law and tikanga

Early into my studies at the University of Otago I realised that I would have a complex relationship with the law.

On one hand, I loved the adversarial nature of the law that created opportunity for change and could be used to help others. On the other hand, I realised the legal system was one that had oppressed our people and stripped them of their whenua and identity for generations.

A group of people standing outside Parliament
Attendees of Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa hui ā tau in August this year in Te Whanganui-ā-Tara. The theme of the hui was inspired by the whakataukī, Ānei tātou nā ko te pō; anā tatou he rā ki tua: Here we are in the night, a new day is yet to come. Photo: Evan Mason


Realising this made me consider the impacts of colonisation on our whānau, which led me to enrol in a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Indigenous Development. The university lecture theatres soon turned from a competitive learning environment among eager law students into whānau-based wānanga with friends who were sharing the journey through te ao Māori.

Through the guidance of my tuakana, I was able to explore who I was as Māori, and start to shed the hurt my whānau had carried for generations as we undertook the journey into our whakapapa. This journey is a lifelong one. However, balancing my learning of law with my learning of tikanga Māori gave me my foundational ethos that I have carried through into my practice.

Perhaps the pivotal moment came to me in my final year of study. I had the privilege to share a room and listen to Matua Moana Jackson speak. He asked us all: “are you going to be a lawyer who happens to be Māori, or a Māori who happens to be a lawyer?”

And it is that simple proposition that I return to in the darker days to remind myself of who I am.

A Māori employment lawyer

I have predominantly practised in employment law from the day I stepped foot into my first legal job in Invercargill. I had the arguably rare experience of learning from rangatira who trusted me, valued my opinion and genuinely wanted me to be the best lawyer possible. I attribute any successes I may have to those who guided me from the outset and allowed me to be unapologetically myself.

There appear to be only a small number of Māori lawyers practising in the employment space but those I have met are epic. I consider myself lucky to keep such talented company in this space. We have similar goals of implementing tikanga-based values into workplaces, employment relationships, and, importantly, dispute resolution.

Some of my most memorable moments arise from having the freedom to act in accordance with my tikanga and that of my clients when resolving a dispute. I hope to see the implementation of tikanga-based values and te reo Māori into more workplaces across Aotearoa, with studies now confirming it improves workplace wellness.

How can we truly pursue rangatiratanga in the current climate of the legal profession?

I don’t purport to have all the answers. Truth be told, I don’t even think I can fully articulate all the questions.

The concepts of employment law mirror the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – at its highest level, partnership, participation, consultation, and active protection. Despite this, what I often see is Māori who are disempowered in their employment and ultimately their search for rangatiratanga.

The same can be said for Māori practising law. I don’t need to reiterate the findings of the Dame Margaret Bazley Report or the 2018 Legal Workplace Survey, but they clearly indicated that many Māori are suffering in the profession and their workplaces. There are a multitude of reasons why this may be.

One of the reasons I think that Māori struggle in today’s legal climate, and particularly in private practice, is due to the inherent disconnect between tikanga and the law and ultimately the flow-on effect that has into our workplaces. This disconnect can be detrimental to our holistic wellbeing as individuals and as a collective.

Mental health in the workplace is a pressing topic on the horizon in employment law. The judiciary are currently tasked with setting the standards and expectations of employers where their employee(s) are suffering from poor mental health.

Meeting house

It is said that the mental health of many Māori has suffered as a direct result of colonisation, and to reclaim mental wellbeing for Māori will require reconnection to land, culture, whakapapa and history. This leads me to the concept of Te Whare Tapa Whā, a Māori model of wellbeing developed by Professor Sir Mason Durie in the 1980s. It resonates with me and I have attempted to implement it to seek balance and stability in my practice and life.

In its simplest form, Te Whare Tapa Whā is a model for understanding Māori health. The symbol of the wharenui contains four strong foundations and sides, which illustrate the four dimensions of Māori wellbeing:

  • Taha Whānau (social wellbeing),
  • Taha Tinana (physical wellbeing),
  • Taha Hinengaro (mental wellbeing),
  • Taha Wairua (spiritual wellbeing).

Should one of the dimensions (or walls of the wharenui) be missing or in some way damaged, a person or collective may become unbalanced or unwell. When I am having a tough day at mahi, or feeling a “bit off” I look to the wharenui, assess my walls and ask myself what is missing.

Whakaaro Māori in the workplace

This somewhat simple, yet intrinsically complex, model of Te Whare Tapa Whā leads me to the importance of whakaaro Māori for the Māori lawyer and the incorporation of that into our workplaces to improve our holistic wellbeing. Due to the disconnect between tikanga and the law and the flow on effect this can have, we must identify what it means to us to be a Māori lawyer in order to find harmony in our mahi but, more importantly, in ourselves.

This overarching kaupapa of determining what kind of lawyer you want to be is relevant to any individual who is determining their bottom line in their workplaces. I believe having this clarity can help us look after our mental wellbeing and the overall health of our wharenui.

I find the following whakaaro useful to return to as it helps to keep me grounded.

Follow your passion

We can often be hard on ourselves if we are not working in areas that may impact on Māori in an “obvious” way (for example Waitangi Tribunal, criminal law, whenua Māori). We have amazing Māori rangatira (the list of my “idols” would be way too long to include) who are leading change and improvement for our people in these areas.

I draw my inspiration to practise employment law from Justice Joseph Williams, the first Māori Supreme Court Justice. In his Harkness Henry Memorial lecture “An Historical Attempt to Map the Māori Dimension in Modern New Zealand Law” Justice Williams looks at three stages of law in New Zealand. He considers that we are currently in the third law of Aotearoa which “proceeds on the basis that tikanga Māori is not foreign and separate but rather integrated and mainstream”, but he acknowledges that we still have work to do. If you have not read this lecture – you should.

We need a Māori voice in all facets of the law; it affects our people and we each have a role to play. Wherever your passion may lie – whether it be employment law, intellectual property, whenua Māori or sports law – kia kaha, every single space is a “treaty-space” and is just as important as the next.

Hold fast to your identity

Ask yourself the big question: are you a lawyer who happens to be Māori, or a Māori who happens to be a lawyer?

Kia mau ki tō Māoritanga and stand up for what you believe in. Your approach to any issue that may arise in a workplace will be key to any resolution. Stay respectful and solutions-focused. After all, you cannot control what other people do, you can only choose how you react (and you’ll feel much better for staying true to yourself).

Through following your own passion, you will become empowered to be unapologetically yourself. You do not have to change your values or foundational ethos in order to work in the law. In fact, it is these things that will bring you the greatest rewards. Find someone to work for who totally accepts that and supports it – they are out there.

Don’t wait for the change, be the change

We can’t wait for others to make things happen; we need to be the drivers of the change that we want to see.

Encourage and educate others on your ethos and tikanga when you want to (and only when you want to – you will know when that is). Call out racism when you see it. Encourage your workplace to engage specialists to assist their workplace development, rather than call on you as their Māori employee for all of their Māori needs. Look to your wharenui and ask if you are looking after every dimension of your wellbeing.

There will always be tough days, so make sure you have your village of support around you. Ask for help, and listen to those who ask the same of you. I am so lucky to have mine filled with my whānau from home, university, workplaces, employment spaces and of course, Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa. Look to your whakapapa in times of need and draw inspiration from those around you; through this you will see that you are never alone.

Conclusion

My whakaaro isn’t new; it is drawn from our tīpuna who have come before me. It is drawn from inspirational rangatira in the profession who have shared their whakaaro and created a safe space for this kōrero. It is drawn from my own experiences which have helped to colour my perspective.

Balancing tikanga and the law as we know it will continue to be an ongoing battle for Māori and we may never find full satisfaction or harmony in the system. However, I have realised that happiness is a journey rather than a destination, and for me I have found peace in finding my voice and role to play in the system in our search for tino rangatiratanga.

Don’t let being a lawyer define you, rather, let who you are define the kind of lawyer you want to be. Staying connected to my whakapapa and te ao Māori helps me to ensure the walls of my wharenui of wellbeing are balanced, and as part of that I am able to look after my mental health; just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Alice Anderson, Ngāi Tahu, grew up in Winton, near Invercargill. She studied at the University of Otago and since graduating has worked in firms in Invercargill and Hamilton. Alice has recently relocated to Wellington to continue her legal journey.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD NZ, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.

If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah sarah.taylor@lodlaw.com

Last updated on the 29th November 2019