John Bowie Newly annointed Law Society president Tiana Epati presents a fresh, new face for the legal profession, but as an immigrant and a person who has faced prejudice she also has two ‘champions of change’ who helped make her who she is.
The self-declared “Tiana from Gisborne” presents one of those inspirational faces and stories of overcoming prejudice to succeed.
It is another immigrant story that can inspire lawyers and indeed anyone to accomplish goals despite setbacks and ignorance.
The Law Society released a video – unusual in itself, but reflective of the changing demographics of the profession – from Ms Epati describing her role.
But what is also of interest is the speech she provided last year at a Continuing Legal Education conference when she described arriving in New Zealand from Samoa as a 10 year old and her rise to becoming a successful lawyer.
In 2019 the profession now has a gender makeup that is over 51 per cent women, compared to 27 per cent 20 years ago. The age is also dropping, to around 42 per cent today. And while the profession’s ethnicity is predominantly European, at over 78 per cent, the Samoan segment sits at just 1.4 per cent on the latest Law Society figures.
Tiana Epati’s own rise followed her parents’ emigration to New Zealand, which lead eventually to her father becoming the country’s first Samoan Judge.
However the challenges they all faced were hardly insignificant. Her own graduation was with an ‘ordinary’ degree that did not guarantee entry into any significant legal role and she continued waitressing, until a day when her life changed.
A group of lawyers arrived, including two lawyers who entered the busy restaurant were sufficiently impressed with her attitude and abilities to speak with the restaurant owner, who told them – Simon Moore QC and Christine Gordon QC (now both High Court Judges) – that she was herself a qualified lawyer.
The encounter was one that lead to a coveted role at Meredith Connell, learning from some of the best trial lawyers. She subsequently moved to Wellington to work for Luke Cunningham & Clere and later Crown Law.
She described being rejected as “a Coconut’ as a lawyer and the patronising attitudes between the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ views.
However, she prevails and will doubtless be one of the more inspirational figures for younger lawyers, be they male or female.