Law Society President Tiana Epati is LawFuel’s 2019 Staedtler ‘Lawyer of the Year’.
Labelling herself ‘the reluctant president’, Tiana Epati has presented a younger, fresh face on a profession battling challenges in the wake of recent #Metoo, bullying and related issues, as well as its efforts to also put a fresh face on a profession facing efforts to changes its ‘culture’, along with accompanying pressures of compliance, gender equality, work/life balance and increased competition from AI developments and other quarters.
LawFuel have selected Ms Epati as the lawyer who has had the greatest positive impact upon the profession – accidental or not.
Staedtler - Lawyer of the Year sponsors
Rachel Moore* When Tiana Epati asked a fellow lawyer, a Māori woman, “Do you think the profession is ready for the Samoan girl from Gisborne to be Law Society president?” her answer was, “Hell no, but have a go anyway.”
Criminal defence lawyer Epati made the decision to try, and could accept the loss if that’s what the profession decided.
From the beginning of her campaign, one of the first conversations she tackled was race in the industry, and she was one of the only ones talking about it. “That was not something that was spoken about, really at all and it was uncomfortable at times.”
Previous talks of inclusivity in the industry really only meant gender, she says, but it is time to start having those difficult conversations about race and racism in law.
At 43, Epati is the youngest and first Pasifika Law Society President.
Sex Assault Scandal
She took over the presidency right after law firm Russell McVeagh’s sexual assault scandal, and says it was “really hard” to learn to be a president with both the profession, and the public, watching.
The scandal broke in February 2018 and consequently a survey was conducted in April looking at workplace environments within the industry.
With the benefit of hindsight, Epati says the survey could have been done earlier. “That was that was quite monumental and it told us a lot and told us where we should be focusing our efforts in terms of change.”
Looking back at the last five years, women aged between 25 and 39 are the most vulnerable, which “wasn’t a huge surprise”.
Ethnicity also plays quite a significant role, says Epati, and Māori lawyers have a much higher prevalence rate.
There were some atypical results for Māori men, with 29% having experienced sexual harassment. Bullying is also much more common for Māori lawyers, and the main perpetrator is, perhaps surprisingly, women.
“If you are a woman of color, working criminal or family [law], aged between 25 and 39, you were actually one of the most vulnerable people in the profession.”
Epati says there was really open public criticism from Māori and Pacific women about being completely left out of the MeToo conversation.
She says some Māori women lawyers were really angry, not just with the Law Society, but with everybody. “It wasn’t that they said, ‘We were made to feel invisible; we were made invisible’.”
Epati says the first thing she had to do as president was to repair that relationship and acknowledge the Law Society had made a mistake by not ensuring their voices were front and center.
Culture Change Taskforce
In response to the survey, a culture change taskforce was initiated to “drive and guide systems of culture change within the legal community”.
Epati says they need to tackle “all of it”, and that’s hard. They are looking at community, worldwide issues of racism and discrimination of all kinds.
There are a lot of people who want to be heard, and Epati says it is important they are.
She still hesitates to say the industry is truly inclusive, but says we are now talking about it “in a really open way”.
“I think before you even get to inclusivity there has to be respect and recognition, and that requires quite an honest, courageous conversation.”
Epati has a two-step formula for people who want to take action. “It’s called showing up and doing the work and it’s about allyship – proper, selfless allyship”.
Showing up means showing up for somebody, whether you do that publicly, or quietly behind the scenes. “It’s not about participating in the woke Olympics.”
Doing the work is about understanding what it is like to have a different worldview, or stand in another person’s shoes.
“It means that I don’t go to the one Māori person in my work and ask them to educate me, and I certainly don’t expect them to always do the mihi and always do the karakia.
“It actually means that if I want to respect and recognize tikanga that I’ll actually take a bit of time out to do that and I’m going to pay for it. Doing the work actually means you take it upon yourself, you see that as your own responsibility.”
Helping people is something that inspires Epati, and was one of the driving forces for her entering the law industry.
She remembers sitting on the floor of her father’s office (her father is Judge A’e’au Semi Epati) in Samoa and hearing him help “an endless parade of people”.
“He was known as the man who would take the hard cases, the ones that were unlikely to win, by people who didn’t have any money, and he would do it anyway.”
“He didn’t win often but every now and again he did, and I would see the impact that that had on families, on people.”
She ignored many stern words from her father telling her not to go into law. When it became apparent his words were falling on deaf ears, he passed on some words of advice she has never forgotten.
“If you do this,” he said, “You must promise me that you’ll be the best that you can be because what we do is far too important to be mediocre.”
Epati thinks about this often, and always strives to be the best she can.
She found law school tough, and by her own admission ended up with a pretty “ordinary” law degree from Auckland Law School.
She waitressed throughout university to pay the bills and found herself at the end of her degree still waiting tables and serving the lawyers she went to school with.
One day a big, difficult group of lawyers came in. “They ordered things that weren’t even on the menu, they wanted to be in and out 45 minutes, we were understaffed, and I just had to manage the situation.”
The lawyer who paid the bill asked if Epati had done a course in dealing with difficult people, because his prosecutors could do with that.
Justice Moore, (left) who was Crown Solicitor of Auckland at the time, left his number for Epati to call.
“When I finally did call it just so happened that that day they were interviewing for one graduate position, and he said, ‘Can you be in the office in 30 minutes?’”
When Moore rang to break the news that she hadn’t got the position at Meredith Connell, Epati asked to participate in the pupilage program as a 2-week intern.
At the end of her two weeks, they created a new position for her in the firm, and hired her.
‘Sliding Door’ Moment
It was her “sliding doors moment”, she says, but also believes it was her resilience, and ability to get back up and try again, that helped her succeed.
If you look at her CV, it looks like a “wonderful evolvement”, from Meredith Connell to the Wellington Crown Law Office, and you don’t see the initial failures, she says.
“I interviewed with Crown law four times and was rejected. And then finally on the fourth go, they were like, ‘Geez, you’re just gonna keep coming back, aren’t you?’”
In 2012, Epati made the transition to Gisborne with her family. Her husband is from there, and she felt that she needed to move districts to make the change from prosecutor to defence lawyer.
She found herself campaigning for a district judge in the area after she had a client who could only be granted judge-only bail, and the next judge was not due in town for three weeks.
Her client remained in the police station with no facilities for 7 days until she managed to get a judge to hear the bail application over the phone.
In no small part because of Epati’s persistence, Gisborne now has two resident judges, and is about to get a third.
Writing to them in her plight for more judges was her first encounter with the Law Society. Because of her vehemence to secure a judge for the area, she worked her way up from Gisborne representative, to vice-president of the board, and now president.
Although this job has meant a step back from criminal law, Epati loves it. But when it is over she plans to go back to Gisborne and get back into it.
“I’ve been a trial lawyer for 20 years, I think it’s probably safe to say it’s in my DNA.”