No dreams left undone

November will mark 20 years since Mai Chen co-founded public law firm Chen Palmer. Now a prominent industry figure, Chen tells NZ Lawyer about the firm’s future and an inescapable client shift

No dreams left undone
It’s a grizzly day in late autumn when we meet in Chen Palmer’s Auckland office. The view outside, a swathe of harbour ensconced in deep grey storm clouds, couldn’t be more different from the view within.

Mai Chen, the indomitable force behind New Zealand’s top public law firm, stands beaming beside an almost life-sized bronze and glass mermaid sculpture brought back from a holiday in Greece.

“It is from Santorini. You can only get to the top where the houses and shops are by mule or cable car,” Chen explains. “The mermaid was displayed against the backdrop of the sea glistening in the distance.
She looked free and happy.”

Chen bringing back a half-tonne statue, when others might have stuck with a chintzy key chain, says something about her attitude to life: she does nothing half-hearted.

“At the end of my life, I want to have no regrets. I want to die with no dreams left undone,” she tells NZ Lawyer. “Everything I have wanted to do, I have done.”

This November marks the 20th anniversary of the firm Chen co-founded with former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and Chen says she is optimistic about the future. “It’s wonderful to watch the next generation of lawyers [at] Chen Palmer,” she says. “I won’t be here in 20 years, they will. They are the succession.”

 “I’m aware that I am only as good as my last job,” she says. “I just have to keep working at being good at the law and not being distracted. So I don’t want to start new things, I just want to do well what I have already started.”

Chen says another issue involves balancing the need for quality legal advisors with New Zealand’s changing demographics.

“Law firms need great Asian lawyers,” she says. “I won’t hire somebody just because they can speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Frankly, if I need an interpreter, I can get one. The real issue is to find Asian lawyers who are great lawyers. That’s always the constant search for me.”

Ethnicity issues will always be a sensitive area among firm leadership and many may be reluctant to have a conversation about it, but Chen says firms should consider what Asian culture puts a high priority on: “Asian culture is similar to the Maori culture in venerating ancestors, and being very whanau-based. There is paramount emphasis on long-term relationships and trust.”

Almost one in four Aucklanders now identify as Asian, a fact which law firms, ignore at their peril, according to Chen.

“Lawyers need to go where their client base is going and clearly we’ve got a large influx of Asian immigrants into New Zealand,” she says. “We have to think about what that means for New Zealand, and for public policy and law.

Asian immigrants, as well as those from other, non-English speaking parts of the world, face unique legal problems, Chen explains.

“They have issues to business regulation, but they also have issues understanding the legal culture [in New Zealand]. In New Zealand there are laws and you have to follow them. A significant part of my practice with Asian clients is explaining the laws and rules they have to comply with when they have gotten into trouble. I have even had to advise that officials cannot be bribed!”

Chen believes stereotypes also present Asian immigrants challenges.

“Let me give you an example,” says Chen. “I was approached by one of the top 25 companies in the world. They happen to be an Asian company. They needed supply of a particular product and they didn’t know how to get it. I arranged for them to meet with [mostly Maori providers] to try enter into contracts for supply.

“One Pakeha provider arrived and was rude to the clients; ‘How do I know you’re legitimate? I don’t want to work with anybody who’s going to come, rip me off and then take off. There are so many Asians like you who come and don’t make a contribution to this country’. It was very negative. My Asian clients were shocked.  They were not used to being treated like this.

“I was firm with the provider. I said, ‘This company is in the top 25 in the world, and these people come in good faith That is why I am acting for them..”

Chen says helping immigrant clients resonates with her, largely because of her own life experience. “When I first came to this country, I couldn’t speak English and we didn’t have any resources. We didn’t know anybody. To be in a position now where I can help immigrants succeed is fantastic.”

The fact that she can find the time to provide such help, among her duties managing a national law firm, writing books, being an Adjunct Professor at the University of Auckland Business School, being a mother and taking on urgent complex cases (she argued the Phillipstown School case last year while simultaneously setting up the New Zealand Asian Leaders Association and the Auckland office of Chen Palmer) speaks of a determination that few could match.

“The thing that motivates me is that I am on this earth for a short time and I just want to make as much of a difference as I can,” she says.

Highlights of Chen’s career include:
  • Advising Origin Energy on the regulatory and government risks of purchasing EME’s shares in Contact Energy
  • Advising Auckland Institute of Technology (a polytechnic) on becoming Auckland University of Technology, Wellington Polytechnic on merging with Massey University, and Dunedin College of Education on a proposed merger with the University of Otago
  • Acting for Mercury Energy in the Ministerial Inquiry on the Auckland Energy Supply Crisis, and acting for clients in the Royal Commission into Genetic Engineering and the Royal Commission into Auckland Governance
  • Reviewing the Privacy Act 1993 for the Associate Minister of Justice in 2000, and appearing in the privacy case of Hosking v Runting & Ors in the Court of Appeal
  • Advising the Ministry of Health on the implications of the Human Rights Amendment Bill 2001, and Treasury on aspects of the Public Finance Act;
  • Appearing in Board of Trustees of Salisbury Residential School v Attorney-General [2013] NZAR 228 (HC)
  • Appearing in Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Claim, WAI2336 (2012) (Waitangi Tribunal) and Aotearoa Claim concerning Te Wananga o Aotearoa, WAI 1298 (2005) (Waitangi Tribunal)
  • Appearing in Unison Networks Ltd v Commerce Commission [2008] 1 NZLR 42 (SCNZ)
  • Appearing in Inatio Akaruru v Tiaki Wuatai and Chief Electoral Officer (Cook Islands Court of Appeal)
  • Appearing in Attorney-General v Unitec Institute of Technology [2007] 1 NZLR 750 (CA)
  • Appearing in Whangamata Marina Society Inc v Attorney-General (2006) 18 PRNZ 565 (HC)
  • Acting for the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association in cases against the Westland District Council and the Thames-Coromandel District Council
  • Getting major changes to legislation, including the Local Government Act, the Resource Management Act, the Waste Minimisation Act,
  • Writing best-selling book Public Law Toolbox in 2012 and Transforming Auckland: The Creation of Auckland Council in 2014
This article appeared in New Zealand Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 6.2. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.  

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