Top law firm embraces cultural diversity
Plans by one of New Zealand’s largest law firms to recruit more Māori and Pacific Island lawyers have been welcomed by key players in both ethnic groups.
Russell McVeagh CEO Gary McDiarmid says the move is part of a diversity project launched two years ago which initially focused on gender diversity. This has now been extended to cultural diversity, with the firm reaching out to attract more Māori and Pacific Island law graduates.
“Our own client base is a diverse mix so it makes sense to recruit people that our wide range of clients can connect with,” he told Law News. “It also makes good business sense – we see ourselves as the best in the business so we want the best staff.
“Our firm’s leaders recognise diversity is vital for competitive advantage and having a diverse agenda helps us to attract and retain staff and results in innovation, collaboration, customer satisfaction and the ability for us to use technology well, all of which are crucial for businesses to stay competitive in the marketplace.”
Mr McDiarmid says when he joined the firm it only had one Māori partner. A second later came onboard with both being “constantly sought after in the market”.
“However, both have since left with one being head-hunted at a young age to become a High Court Judge and the other a leader at the bar.”
Mr McDiarmid says one of the main obstacles to recruiting Māori and Pacific Island law graduates is overcoming their perception that big law firms are intimidating and hard places to work.
“We received informal feedback that some of these law students were ‘self-selecting’ out of applying for roles at corporate law firms as there is a perception held by some that firms are large, intimidating environments largely populated with white males. There’s also a belief that law firm values may not align with their own.”
To counter such views, the firm has worked closely with the Māori and Pacific Island Law Students’ Associations to break down any perceived barriers preventing them applying for a job.
“We want them to join us and we are trying to level that out.”
Russell McVeagh has also held unconscious bias training for its partners and recruitment team “to ensure that we know how to recruit a diverse workforce”.
“We have initiated a number of programmes within the firm to educate our staff on other cultures and how they work as we realise that it is important to not only recruit a diverse range of people, but make sure they are comfortable once they are in our environment. We might be a bit of a scary place for some people, but we are looking at how we can make it a less scary place,” says Mr McDiarmid.
Russell McVeagh’s cultural diversity strategy has been welcomed by Andrew Erueti, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland School of Law.
“There continues to be a need for greater diversity across the profession, the judiciary, law partners, lawyers and law firms,” he told Law News. This is a concern and that is one of the reasons why the Law School seeks to promote diversity and respect for diversity within itself.
“I think it would be a good idea for all law firms to have a clear Te Tiriti and diversity programme, including ideas about how to promote equality, cultural respect and fairness across the firm and in its relationships with clients. A Te Tiriti policy makes good business sense too, with the increased political and economic influence wielded by iwi.”
Aidan Warren, co-president of Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa, the Māori Law Society, is also supportive of the Russell McVeagh initiative.
“I think any business that has a strategy to employ more Māori and Pacific Islanders should be supported and promoted. Getting more and more of our people into the big firms and doing some of the big projects can only be beneficial.
“With the growing Māori economy and growing Māori asset base they are going to be engaging in transactions with the big players who are involved in joint ventures with Māori. Having lawyers that understand the cultural imperatives, values and context, together with a good grasp of the law, is going to be absolutely valuable. It’s great that these firms are doing that and it also makes good business sense,” he says.
However, Mr Warren believes there’s room for large law firms to open the door even wider for Māori and Pacific Island lawyers.
“To me it would be really good to see some of our talent becoming partners of these firms because that’s where the true influence of the culture will be realised. If we could start to see that infiltration at the partnership table or at the directors’ table, then that’s where I think the real change and the real benefits will start to flow.”
Mr Warren himself had his eyes set on becoming a lawyer from a very early age, thanks to his grandfather.
“My grandfather sowed the seeds about becoming a lawyer when I was about five – that stuck with me as I went through school and I always wanted to become a lawyer. I went to Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay where there was a big emphasis on Sir Apirana Ngata who was the first Māori lawyer, so that’s how it all started with me.”
Mr Warren says there was a sense of family pride and responsibility when he graduated from the University of Waikato School of Law.
“There is an affinity between Māori and the law and lawyers, because the law had taken away so much from them. So a lot of the old people encouraged their grandchildren to understand the law in order to ensure their rights and interests were protected.”
In 2014 (when the latest figures were available), 1390 New Zealanders graduated with a law degree – around 8 per cent of them, or 111, were Māori. Today, it is estimated just 5.5 per cent of the country’s 12,100 practising lawyers are Māori, despite making up about 16 per cent of the population.
Helena Kaho, the Pacific Academic Advisor at the University of Auckland, told Law News Māori and Pacific Islanders face many obstacles getting into law school.
“Some relate to cultural values and some to socio-economic issues. In terms of cultural values, a lot of law is based on western values and perspectives, with a heavy emphasis on the individual being subject to law as opposed to the collective. For Pacific Islanders, our lives are shaped around our families and communities, so from the outset there is a cultural disconnect there.”
Ms Kaho says Pacific students are often the first members of their family to undertake tertiary studies and the process of being admitted to a degree programme and paying the fees can be overwhelming and scary, to the point where it becomes an insuperable barrier.
“Pacific students often have many family, church and community commitments that they have to juggle in addition to their studies. I know of students who come into the university, sit through several lectures, and then go home where they are responsible for looking after several younger siblings as Mum and Dad work long hours doing shift work to pay the bills.
“Parents who haven’t been through tertiary study sometimes underestimate the amount of pressure students face at university in general, and particularly in a competitive, grades-focused discipline like law.”
Ms Kaho says the Undergraduate Targeted Admission Scheme, which reserves a number of places in law schools for Māori and Pacific Islanders and other under-represented groups, has helped to offset the obstacles they face.
At Auckland University, the scheme provides for 13 places into Part II Law for Pacific Island students and 32 places for Māori, allowing them entry with a slightly lower grade point average (GPA) than is otherwise required.
“Another factor that is alien to many Pacific students is the culture of law school, in that it can be a very individualistic and openly competitive environment. For Pacific students, many of whom are used to co-operating and collaborating and sharing and looking out for each other, this can be confronting.
“The substantive content of the law itself, and our legal system, is based around Western values that don’t always sit comfortably with a Pacific world view and values.”
Ms Kaho, who is the first Pacific Islander to become an academic at the Auckland Law School, says comprehensive support structures are in place at the school for Pacific Island students to help them counter the “intimidating and culturally different environment”. These include pastoral care, academic support, a strong student association and elective papers focusing on the Pacific.
“In addition, there is an annual Pacific Legal Issues Moot that students can participate in, as well as many opportunities to attend conferences and practitioner-run initiatives to expose students to networking and career opportunities.”
Ms Kaho believes Pacific Island and Māori law students have much to offer the legal profession, having “a real love of people and the ability to engage with and relate to a wide cross-section of society”.
“The experience of having to live in and function effectively across two worlds makes us better lawyers in the sense that we can relate to clients from diverse backgrounds, even if they differ from our own.
“It makes us better advocates for clients in that we can account for and express things to the court that might otherwise be overlooked by someone who doesn’t understand how culture can influence actions. It helps us understand disadvantage, discrimination, stereotypes and barriers in a way that not everyone can.
“We are not confined to one world view – we can step into our clients’ shoes and see the world from their perspective because that is what we have to do daily.”
Like many Pacific Islanders, Ms Kaho overcame seemingly impossible odds to become a lawyer herself.
Something of a teenage tearaway, she “wagged school” in Auckland and missed out on most of her fourth form year, later going on to become a beauty therapist and mother of four children by the time she was 26.
The turning point in her life came with the University of Auckland’s “New Start” preparation and bridging programme which helps people aged 20 or over who do not have UE to take a first step into university study. It was an eye-opener to her and she went on to complete a BA/LLB (Hons) followed by an LLM (Hons) and to take up a position as Assistant Lecturer at the Auckland Law School.
Today, she is committed to helping others achieve their full potential. In the meantime, she believes there is still some way to go yet before the New Zealand legal profession and judiciary truly reflect the diverse ethnic makeup of the country.
Which is something that large law firms like Russell McVeagh are only too well aware of. CEO Gary McDiarmid says the goal is “to lead the legal industry in terms of diversity initiatives – we want to lead by example.”
“All our staff, from graduates to partners, come from a range of schools all over the country, both public and private, and our view is that it’s not about where you’re from. What we care about is whether the people we are attracting are smart, driven and interesting. We are already a market leader for gender diversity and for over 10 years have recruited approximately 50 per cent female graduates each year.”
Mr McDiarmid says women currently make up around 30 per cent of the firm’s partners, 50 per cent of senior managers, 40 per cent of senior associates and 45 per cent of graduates.
“We want to keep building on these statistics and to start leading the market in terms of cultural diversity as well. Having a diverse workforce is becoming a crucial quality in the talent pool that business leaders in all industries need to draw on.”