Diversity in the legal industry: New Pasifika initiative to get more people into law school

Auckland barrister and president of the Pacific Lawyers Association Tania Sharkey remembers not being picked by the top law firms when she graduated from law school.

In fact, no one in her group of fellow Pasifika students did.

She said she felt lucky a Samoan lawyer eventually took a chance on her. She now works as a barrister for Friendship Chambers based in Manukau.

“I think of how many of my colleagues, they couldn’t find jobs so they took the next best offer, whatever offer came along.”

But Sharkey believes a lack of diversity in the profession doesn’t start at the recruitment phase, but with the barriers Pasifika people face in entering law school and graduating.

Sharkey is chairing an advisory panel for an initiative aiming to improve Pasifika legal education in New Zealand.

Those involved are holding conversations in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland, hearing from more than 140 former and current lawyers, students and those who graduated from law school but later moved to another career.

Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Mele Tupou Vaitohi is leading the project and has been listening in at the discussions.

She told the Herald there have been some “horror stories” – such as Pasifika lawyers being mistaken for defendants or being told they will never make it in law school – which have moved her to tears.

“Some of it really makes you cry. [It’s] very emotional at times.

“It’s intense when you’re listening to these stories.”

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The consultation phase is expected to end in May and a report with recommendations will be produced by October.

“This is very dear project, close to [my] heart, we’re hoping to be able to make a difference with it,” said Tupou-Vaitohi.

Improving the curriculums taught at New Zealand’s law schools – and the way it is taught – is a crucial way to increase the number of Pasifika lawyers and judges, Sharkey said.

“Judges for example, are recruited from the legal profession and that’s made up of lawyers who graduate from one of the six law schools, so those law schools are basically the pipeline.

“That’s the entry point for the pool of people judges can be appointed from.”

'Just because you get the As doesn't mean you're going to make a great lawyer'

There are currently no Pasifika judges above the District Court level and no Pasifika Queen’s Counsel (QC), Sharkey said.

Meanwhile Pasifika lawyers make up just 3 per cent of all practitioners.

“The national stats for Pacific peoples completing their law degrees between 2009 and 2018 was 40 or 50 per cent, that’s a strong message that something isn’t working for us,” Sharkey said.

She believes a problem with the current educational approach is how it rewards students with the highest grades.

“Just because you get the As doesn’t mean you’re going to make a great lawyer.

“A number of our students are working as well as going to law school, but it’s not working for extra pocket money, it’s working to help the family pay their bills.

“We’ve got a whole lot of external commitments that a lot of other people don’t have, whether that’s church work and the like.”

For all law student success, Sharkey suggested universities move away from heavy textbook reading to a more visual and oral approach.

“You can read a 100-page case but you’re really not learning it.

“I struggled with that. I don’t know how I got through law school. I think it’s even harder for those coming through these days. Everything is so different now and law school needs to change with these times.”

Meanwhile Tupou-Vaitohi said Pasifika lawyers also expressed feeling “a lack of belonging” with the curriculum content.

This included not having enough examples of Pasifika-specific case studies in mainstream law courses.

“Things that articulate the Pasifika context or background that led to the accused being accused in that particular case, for example, I was thinking of a case that happened in 1970s where a Samoan came here and … he overstayed his visa because he didn’t have the money to pay for his ticket [home].

“He sent it back to Samoa so he ended up having no money for his tickets.”

Tupou-Vaitohi hopes diversifying the content will have a “ripple effect” on how students and the judiciary make decisions.

“We’re really hoping to address some barriers coming out in our talanoa because we want to improve the experiences and success of Pasifika students who pursue these legal degrees.

“That’s the dream.”

Increasing the number of Pasifika lawyers is not only important for the profession, but for the clients they represent.

Pacific peoples are overrepresented in the family, youth and criminal justice system, Sharkey said.

“When you have [a lawyer] who looks like you, who is able to understand that background, you do find a difference in the way that [client] will deal with you.

“When I met with clients and they do know that I am Pacific, and that I understand the background they’re coming from, I understand their culture, and can understand what they’re saying to me if they need to speak in another language, you immediately find the barriers go down.”

She said the increased use of cultural reports at sentencings to understand a defendant’s background is “great progression”, but what’s equally important is “that the person sitting in judgment of them, really does understand where that person is coming from and their background as well”.

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