Wackrow Panoho & Associates director wants to empower Māori to engage with the law

Coral Panoho-Navaja believes that kindness and collaboration will help promote the profession’s longevity

Wackrow Panoho & Associates director wants to empower Māori to engage with the law
Coral Panoho-Navaja

For Coral Panoho-Navaja, fostering kindness, collegiality and collaboration over competition is critical to not only bolstering the longevity of the legal profession in New Zealand, but also to innovation.

The Wackrow Panoho & Associates director and 2023 Most Influential Lawyer has logged over two years as a law firm owner, and credits the different forms of support she has received as key to her accomplishment.

In this interview, Panoho-Navaja talks being the first lawyer in her family, celebrating the use of Te Reo Māori, and the balancing act of maintaining a healthy law firm.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I was raised in a Māori whānau where service to our people and to our community was always at the forefront of my mind. I had an impressive lineup of role models in my family who were all self-made, dedicated and hard-working people and who helped to instil in me a sense of drive and commitment to see things through to the end. I wanted to pursue a career that would give me a sense of purpose and would align with those core values. Law seemed like the perfect fit and I became the first lawyer in the family.

My favourite part of the job is getting to work with Māori, businesses, whānau, hapū and iwi on a range of different legal issues. No one day is ever the same and as a problem solver at heart, I get excited about thinking outside the box and collaborating with others to find innovative solutions for my clients. Traditionally, the law has been seen as a tool of oppression for Māori and I am particularly interested in how in my practice I can break down those barriers and empower Māori to engage with the law in a way that respects our tikanga and our worldview.

What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

As a small firm, we are mainly getting on and doing the mahi. In recent years, I have been excited about directing more attention towards promoting the wellbeing of our lawyers. Some of the initiatives we have been able to implement have included flexible working arrangements and introducing an annual matariki retreat centered around hauora in the workplace. I am also passionate about celebrating the use of Te Reo Māori within our firm and adopting values such as manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, whakaute, aroha ki te tangata, kaitiakitanga.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

On the work front, by far my proudest accomplishment of late has been surviving as a law firm owner for the past 2+ years. It is a really tough gig and a huge weight of responsibility to carry. I would not have been able to get this far without the support of my team who have stuck by me throughout and also from key mentors such as Don Wackrow and other senior members of the profession who have guided me along the way. This transition has really reinforced for me the importance of collegiality and trusted advisors within and outside of the profession.

What should the profession focus more on?

Kindness and collaboration. I have been really struck by the network of wāhine Māori lawyers who are heading up law firms, or legal teams and who take the approach of kindness, collegiality and collaboration over competition. I think that would help promote longevity within the profession, but also fosters innovation which can only be of benefit to our clients.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

I don’t think any of the challenges we expect to face as a small law firm in Aotearoa will be particularly unique. It is a constant balancing act to maintain a healthy law firm practice.

For the Māori legal sector, senior Māori practitioners such as Annette (Sykes), the late Moana Jackson and others have been engaging in critical debates over the past two decades and more about the intersect between the rule of law and tikanga Māori. We have had decisions from the highest courts in Aotearoa commenting on the place of tikanga in our legal system and we have law commission papers released regarding the weaving together of state law and tikanga (He Poutama). Recently, we have seen a proliferation of legal contests being mounted over government policies of the day affecting Te Reo, Te Tiriti and other Māori rights and interests. Navigating these complex and constitutionally significant issues in a respectful and open-minded way is going to be a huge challenge for all lawyers in the coming years.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

Seeing the growth of my team. I have some really great and talented young lawyers on board and I can’t wait to see them advance in their careers.

If you weren’t in law, what do you think you’d be doing as a career?

Not sure, but definitely not a chef unless the main course was eggs on toast.



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