A student view of Māori underrepresentation in law

“As a kid, it didn’t occur to me that I might be part of a ‘minority’ group,” begins Keely Gage’s article on Māori underrepresentation in the legal profession, published this month in the Employment Law Bulletin.

A profile image of Keely Gage.

Keely wrote the piece as part of a 300-level ethics and professional responsibility class during her penultimate year of studies towards a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

“My legal ethics lecturer Dr Zoё Prebble took the time to give me thoughtful and encouraging feedback on this piece, making me feel heard and valued. Almost a full year later, Dr Prebble suggested my essay would be a good fit for a special issue of the Employment Law Bulletin, which led to this opportunity.”

Keely grew up in Rotorua, where Māori comprise 40.1 percent of the population of the town, attending a school where more than half of the students were Māori. She was one of only three Māori students from her school cohort that entered law school, and intends on practicing law in the coming year.

“The majority of my Māori high school peers never saw university, let alone law school, as a viable option. And why would they? Since Aotearoa was first colonised the legal system has been, and remains, an incredible site of power, and tool of oppression,” says Keely.

Dr Prebble notes, “Keely’s essay was excellent in a number of respects, with great writing and compelling voice, and she skilfully weaves ethical theory into it. She told a story, and brought the reader along with her.” When the lecturer received a letter from the Bulletin’s editor asking if she had anything to contribute to a special issue on employment discrimination and affirmative action, she immediately thought of this essay.

“It is fairly unusual for papers by undergraduate Law students to be accepted for publication in journals. It speaks particularly highly of Keely’s writing, research, and hard work that her essay made such an impression on me and, eventually, the editor of the Bulletin. I’m really proud of her.”

According to data from the 2006 census, Māori made up just 5.5 percent of all legal professionals, and of the 62 percent of lawyers that choose to disclose their ethnicity to the Law Society, only 3.5 percent say they are Māori. Keely notes in her essay that while many of her Pākehā peers can look to their family to find someone to share experiences with and ask advice of, as a young Māori person, this privilege rarely exists. “It is hard to aspire to be something you cannot see.”

She argues that te ao Māori offers another lens through which to view the world, and that tangata whenua are an integral aspect of that. This goes beyond tikanga Māori, “for many Māori clients, navigating their personal and business legal rights and obligations, effective legal representation depends on the availability of Māori practitioners conversant in tikanga”.

Another point Keely raises is that due to the minority Māori represent in the legal profession, it can be difficult to see whether your hire is a box-ticking exercise for the firm you’ve been hired for. She has already felt this, initially being asked to take a necklace off for a law firm photograph, but when it was revealed to be a pounamu, being asked to keep it on and showing. “I immediately felt like I was the token Māori.”

She says, “I do not want to be held to a lower standard because I tick boxes or am good for a firm’s image. I want to achieve because my Māoritanga is recognised as a legitimate form of decision-making and moral reasoning. I want to achieve because my Māoritanga enhances my capabilities as a legal professional.”

She felt valued for her background during an internship with an experienced Pākehā criminal defence lawyer, who understood the value of her knowledge and experience. Their client was represented by two distinct life experiences, and this was reflected in the strength of their submissions, which acknowledged both the crime and the wider ramifications of this on his whānau.

She concludes the article, “Māoritanga is not lesser, it is a different way of thinking and it has a legitimate place in the legal profession, with real benefits for those working both within and outside of the legal profession.”

You can read the full published article here.