Are Māori lawyers well-represented in NZ firms?

“Until the data shows our profession reflects our population, much more needs to be done,” exec says

Are Māori lawyers well-represented in NZ firms?

The number of Māori practitioners in New Zealand is increasing year-to-year. Of the 489 female and 331 male practising Māori lawyers as of June 2018, 12.1% were barristers, 22.4% were in-house counsel, 60% were in a multi-lawyer firm and 5.5% were in sole practice, according to the New Zealand Law Society.

However, while Māori lawyers have become increasingly prominent in private firms, they, like many minority groups, often face cultural biases and other challenges, which often prevent professional development and career progression. 

“Interestingly, most of my Māori contemporaries never applied for the big firms. Too many underestimated their abilities,” said Ngaroma Tahana, a partner at Kahui Legal, a law firm focusing on Māori development.

Moreover, the statistics indicated that there was still progress to be made, the firm’s managing partner, Kiri Tahana, told NZ Lawyer.

“Until the data shows our profession reflects our population, much more needs to be done,” she said.

Challenges in the progression of Māori practitioners

Kiri Tahana outlined several pinch points in the legal profession that prevent Māori practitioners from achieving career progression, which include:

  • lack of access to university and absence of tikanga, te reo and Te Tiriti o Waitangi in university curriculums
  • lack of diversity and inclusion in the recruitment process
  • structural and institutional racism
  • law firm business models that do not reflect Māori values so do not inspire Māori to be part of them

Māori law students also often find big law firms intimidating, leading them to not apply at corporate firms. If they do join, they may realise their values conflict with the firm's business model, so they are not inspired to join the partnership.    

“We are seen by some Māori and Pacific Islanders as large, intimidating, largely ‘white males’ and that the values may not align with their own,” Gary McDiarmid, former CEO of Russell McVeagh, told NZ Lawyer. “We have introduced unconscious bias training for the recruitment team and partners, and are keen to encourage a more diverse range of applicants as part of our scholarship and university recruitment process.”

In a recent interview with NZ Lawyer, Chapman Tripp partner and Māori legal group head Te Aopare Dewes also gave her view on the challenges for young Māori lawyers.

“One of the biggest challenges I see is keeping young lawyers engaged and enthusiastic about a career in private practice. There are so many opportunities beyond the legal sector, particular for young Māori lawyers with business acumen and knowledge of reo and tikanga,” she said.

In a 2015 article in the Māori Law Review, Māori Land Court Deputy Chief Judge Caren Fox outlined the key structural issues that have prevented Māori women specifically from progressing in their legal careers. These barriers include the legal profession's culture, gender perceptions and battling the status quo, working arrangements and motherhood, confidence to act, and the lack of role models and role modelling for wāhine Māori.

Ngaroma Tahana built on Fox’s remarks, telling the New Zealand Law Society that “as Māori women we face both gender and cultural biases.” Nonetheless, “these gender/cultural dimensions are also our greatest strengths,” she said.

Strategies to increase Māori representation in NZ firms

“Change in the legal profession can and will happen if we be true to who we are, build on our strengths and insist on workplaces that support these dimensions,” Ngaroma Tahana told the New Zealand Law Society. She outlined strategies to help increase the country's legal practitioners' diversity, such as “remaining true to who you are; backing yourself; and staying connected with your community.”

She also acknowledged the need for change in New Zealand’s legal landscape.

“The client base law firms seek to service, will insist on its service providers understanding their needs, as women, as Māori, as Chinese, as immigrants as other people other than the status quo currently dominating leadership positions in the legal profession,” Ngaroma Tahana said.

Kiri Tahana outlined the following recommendations to increase Māori representation in private firms:

  • the acknowledgement of institutional and structural racism from universities, law firms, courts and other workplaces and a commitment to redressing this
  • the increase of tikanga, reo and Te Tiriti o Waitangi in tertiary curriculums
  • encouraging Māori to practice law in accordance with our values, in a way that understands whānau, hapū and iwi 

“Creating our own law firms is one way of achieving this,” she said.

In a statement to the New Zealand Law Society, Ngaroma Tahana exhorted Māori lawyers to embrace their identities fully.

“Do not compromise on who you are, back yourself and stay connected to your community,” she said. “This on its own will drive change and require those who lead the legal profession to follow or risk losing an increasing chunk of the legal talent and the changing New Zealand client base.”

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