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Some initiatives to promote diversity

30 August 2019

In 1876 New Zealand’s 225 practising lawyers were all men and of European ethnicity. The next 150 years has seen a gradual movement towards a far more diverse profession. The gender power balance and ethnic make-up of the profession are still far from equal, however. Making change and providing support is the focus of several organisations in the legal community. They were asked for an update on their initiatives and challenges.

Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa – The Māori Law Society

Famously established in 1988 in John Chadwick’s Rotorua garage, the organisation now has a membership of lawyers, judges, parliamentarians, legal academics, policy analysts, researchers and Māori law students.

A woman with a moko

Te Hunga Rōia Māori has just completed its annual Hui-ā-Tau, from 28 to 31 August in Wellington. The theme was “Nā ko te pō, he rā ki tua – Here we are in the night, a new day is yet to come”. This was a challenge to attendees to explore exciting possibilities in the legal landscape and to utilise their untapped potential to bring forth a brighter future.

“To achieve our goals, we cannot overlook the wellbeing of Māori in the legal profession, an issue too often kept in darkness and that must be brought into the light,” Te Hunga Rōia Māori stated in its pre-conference information. “The theme also applies to those whom the legal system has let down, ignored or forgotten. Too often the legal system leaves Māori in the dark, and Te Hunga Rōia Māori has a responsibility to bring Māori out into the light.”

With a new website released earlier this year (, Te Hunga Rōia Māori also launched the second year of its innovative Ngā Wāhine Rōia Māori Mentoring Programme in March. This supports the mentoring and career development of Māori women lawyers across the country. Te Hunga Rōia Māori has also shown its support for recommendations from the Independent Panel’s recommendation of a joined-up family justice system, and the report of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group.

The organisation is led by Female Co-President Marcia Murray and Male Co-President Glenn Tootill, along with young lawyer, student, academic, family law, legal aid and regional representatives.

Pacific Lawyers’ Association

Established in 2001, the PLA has a focus on promoting fellowship and mutual support among Pacific people, identifying and responding to the legal needs of Pacific communities, and promoting and conducting research on any issues of relevance to Pacific lawyers and Pacific people.

One of the big events in 2019 will be the PLA’s first-ever conference. This is being held from 21 to 23 November at AUT’s South Campus in Manukau, South Auckland.

With a theme of “It’s Island Time”, the conference has been designed to bring together those working or interested in the legal field to connect, learn and be inspired in a truly Pacific way.

“Our conference is open to all and our membership is not exclusive to only Pacific lawyers,” says PLA president Tania Sharkey. “We welcome any lawyers who support our objectives to join the PLA.” Those interested in learning more about the PLA and/or the conference are encouraged to go to the PLA’s website for more details.

This year the association also commenced the PLA Speaker Series in Schools.

PLA members have spoken to Pacific students at school assemblies, careers expos, careers pathway classes and workshop sessions in many high schools this year.

“We recently teamed up with the Ministry of Education in a joint initiative to hold workshops for those Pacific students who have now expressed an interest in law following our Speaker Series in Schools,” says Ms Sharkey.

“With Pacific Youth – up to 14 years old – now forming the major ethnic group with the highest proportion of children in New Zealand, we’re taking proactive steps to nurture and attract more Pacific students into the profession. This is about growing the capacity and network of Pacific lawyers who form only 2.6% of the 14,000 lawyers in New Zealand.

“We must encourage our Pacific youth to get into law, work hard and seek to be visible at the top levels of our profession. With an increasing Pacific population, moving the legal profession to better resemble the make-up of our population is important.”

A third 2019 initiative is the PLA – QC Mentoring Programme which launched on 15 March.

“What started with two Queen’s Counsel offering mentorship following the PLA annual dinner last year, has expanded into 11 QCs mentoring 22 intermediate/senior Pacific lawyers,” Ms Sharkey says.

“The QC mentors are focused on supporting growth and development and being a source of wisdom, teaching and support. From the PLA perspective, creating connections and building relationships is invaluable.”

Ms Sharkey says the QCs have offered to mentor by way of catch-up in person, over the phone, and by email – not only to do with the legal practice of Pacific lawyers but any ethical issues faced in practice or career advice.

“On behalf of the PLA, I acknowledge all our Queen’s Counsel mentors and thank them for their offer of assistance to our members.”

Issues facing the Pacific legal community

When asked about the three biggest issues facing the Pacific legal community, Tania Sharkey says diversity is very topical at present, and although the profession is becoming more diverse and inclusive, there is still a long way to go. Diversity of social background, experiences, identity and culture are just some of the qualities that Pacific lawyers bring to the profession.

“The PLA acknowledges those in the legal profession who have connected with our association to promote and encourage meaningful progression in this area including Kayes Fletcher Walker, the New Zealand Bar Association and Shortland Chambers,” she says.

Another issue is the availability of jobs for Pacific law graduates.

“In light of the extended commitments of Pacific law students – to their immediate and wider family, their church, the Pacific community, etc – Pacific graduates do not always have the most compelling of academic transcripts. This is a barrier to Pacific graduates obtaining employment in the legal profession, particularly in the larger law firms,” Ms Sharkey says.

“We encourage employers to take a different outlook and consider how excellence is defined in terms of a candidate’s suitability for a role and what other qualities/skills Pacific lawyers will bring to that legal practice.”

Ms Sharkey says the third major issue can be found in the results of the 2018 Legal Workplace Environment Survey, where 35% of Pacific lawyers surveyed answered “yes” to having experienced bullying in the past six months: the top ethnic statistic in that category.

“Bullying is not a problem isolated to the large law firms – the majority of our lawyers are not working in the larger law firms,” she says.

“Humility is a virtue engrained in the nature of Pacific people. Our lawyers are most likely to be daunted, intimidated and uncomfortable speaking out about bullying behaviour. There is no place for this culture in our profession and it must stop.”

NZAL Lawyers

NZAL (New Zealand Asian Leaders) Lawyers was launched in Auckland on 10 June this year. The founder of NZAL, Mai Chen, says it was established in 2013 to connect, inspire and grow Asian leaders across New Zealand, and these values and vision will underpin NZAL Lawyers. She says NZAL Lawyers was founded following a conversation earlier this year with Law Society President Tiana Epati, who asked why there was no association for Asian lawyers.

Asked about the organisation’s initiatives, Ms Chen says the biggest was the June launch which showed a great deal of interest in the group and also support from the profession for the group’s vision and rationale.

On 2 September, NZAL Lawyers is hosting its next symposium, and CPD credits will be available for those who attend. This will feature an address by Justice Graham Lang, on “How to be effective in the High Court”, and a short address from barrister and solicitor Gurbrinder Aulakh on key differences between Indian and Chinese clients’ understanding of the New ZeaIand legal system.

The event, entitled “Developing your Skills”, will also feature a panel of Asian lawyers including Ruiping Ye who lectures at Victoria University of Wellington School of Law and Zong-Pei Zhao, Special Counsel at Chen Palmer, who will be talking about the rule of law in China, and how it differs from the New Zealand rule of law.

The event will provide guidance for:

  • Lawyers who are not Chinese, to help them effectively advise Chinese clients, and to negotiate effectively with Chinese parties on the other side of a transaction;
  • Chinese lawyers, to better understand the differences between the Chinese and New Zealand rule of law when advising Chinese clients about the New Zealand courts; and
  • Those presiding over proceedings involving Chinese parties or administering justice to Chinese parties.

There will also be an interview between the first mentor and mentee brought together by NZAL Lawyers.

“The last big initiative for NZAL in 2019 will be a joint event between NZAL Lawyers and the Māori Law Society in early November,” Ms Chen says. “This initiative between the two associations will allow networking between those lawyers with clients wanting to do business with each other to make connections but also for Asian lawyers to learn more about the Treaty of Waitangi and for Māori lawyers to learn more about Asian cultures.”

Challenges facing the Asian legal community

Asked about the three biggest challenges for Asian lawyers, Mai Chen says one major challenge is that faced by those who are born in a very distant culture to New Zealand, and the transition to a very different rule of law culture.

“This is a challenge faced particularly by those who are born in mainland China, as countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and India are, or were, part of the Commonwealth, and have adopted a common law system that is closer to that in New Zealand,” she says.

“Many Chinese lawyers in New Zealand arrive here as young adults or even as adults before qualifying to practise law, which increases the challenge of making this transition, in order to effectively advise and advocate for their clients.”

Ms Chen says the second biggest challenge is a corollary to the first.

“It is lawyers acting for litigants from distant Asian cultures explaining this radically different legal and business culture to their clients, and assisting them in understanding the New Zealand court system and framework for resolving disputes.

“It is critically important that lawyers ensure these concepts and ideas are adequately explained, as Asian clients will often view the advice that they are being given through the lens of their experience and understandings, which can lead to the misinterpretation of legal advice.”

She says the last, and perhaps biggest challenge, is the need to adequately equip our courts and interpreting services to ensure that culturally and linguistically diverse parties – including, but not limited to Asian parties – receive equal access to justice in the courts.

“As New Zealand becomes increasingly superdiverse and the number of people living here who speak little to no English increases, it is of vital importance that interpreting services are of a sufficiently high quality and availability to ensure equal access to justice for all.

“It is also increasingly important that courts invest in the infrastructure and support needed for culturally and linguistically diverse parties to effectively navigate the foreign and frightening court system they may find themselves forced to be involved in. Judges and lawyers will also need to grow their cultural and Asian capability so as not to misunderstand Asian parties.”

The Gender Equality Charter

Launched at Parliament on 12 April, the New Zealand Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter provides a set of commitments around gender equality aimed at improving the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession.

By signing up to the charter, signatories commit to lead from the top, make a plan and take action, and measure progress. The specific commitments include tackling unconscious bias, encouraging flexible working, closing the gender pay gap and promoting equitable instructions.

The charter is open to the whole legal profession. Law firms, in-house legal teams, sole practitioners (including barristers sole) and barristers’ chambers can all sign up to signal their commitment to gender equality and inclusion.

By August 2019, 133 legal workplaces had signed up to the charter. Further information is available from the Law Society’s website under Law Society services/ Women in the Legal Profession.


Last updated on the 30th August 2019