Chance came waiting tables

By virtue of birth, race, upbringing, parenthood, training and gender, she was destined to do this

By virtue of birth, race, upbringing, parenthood, training and gender, she was destined to do this

A Pasifika woman, a mother, a lawyer, and now the new president of the New Zealand Law Society. Gisborne lawyer Tiana Epati, who is a partner in the Gisborne law firm Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson, was named as president of the society this morning. She is the youngest person and the first person of Pasifika descent to hold this position.

THE PARTNERS: Tiana Epati with “the boys” — (from left) John Mathieson, Doug Rishworth and Philip Dreifuss.
COVER GIRL: Tiana Epati is in good company in the April edition of LawTalk, the magazine of the New Zealand Law Society.

IT WAS a classic David and Goliath moment.

In the Court of Appeal was a senior Crown counsel with all the resources of the state arguing a case against a lone, much younger, female, Pacific Island defence lawyer from Gisborne.

It was the first case Tiana Epati had taken to the Court of Appeal as a defence lawyer and she was up against an ex-colleague from her former life as a Crown prosecutor. Tiana’s client was a gang member, on legal aid, and she was acutely aware of the difference in resourcing. There wasn’t even enough money to buy breakfast so “the boys” — her colleagues at Gisborne law firm, Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson where she has just become a partner — pitched in to help her out.

Tiana toiled alone for countless hours preparing for the case while her Crown counterpart had a team of librarians and support staff at her disposal.

But Tiana won the case and her client was released from prison within hours of the decision being released. That was three years ago and she has since conducted nine more appeals, and lost only one.

Statistically, 80 percent of appeals are dismissed so Tiana’s record is extraordinary — like everything about the effervescent 40-year-old who looks like she’s fresh from university but has been practising law for 16 years.

“Winning a case like that gave me a huge sense of achievement and made the work all worthwhile,” says Tiana.

“You could never be adequately paid for the number of hours involved in such a case but the satisfaction of winning an appeal like that against the odds is what motivates me.

“The rewards can be huge. It’s a very personal relationship you have with your client and you have the ability to completely change the course of their lives.”

Tiana’s 80 percent success rate with Court of Appeal cases is extraordinary.

Tiana left her job as a Crown prosecutor in both Auckland and Wellington after over a decade, which included nearly four years as senior appellate counsel in the Crown Law Office, and crossed over to the defence side precisely to savour those moments.

“I conducted over 100 jury trials as a Crown prosecutor and I felt privileged to do that job but the work I do now as a defence counsel is, in some senses, more gratifying,” says Tiana.

“And because of all the training and experience I gained with the Crown, I know how prosecutors think. I also know how to identify the arguments and present them in the most persuasive form. And I also know which cases are worthwhile,” she says.

“The work may be tiring, stressful, badly-paid, under-resourced and tougher than on the Crown side, but it’s never, ever dull. Everything we do involves human lives and behaviour.

“We are also dealing with people who are on the fringes of society, from lower socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I sometimes end up working for free because legal aid won’t cover it. I’ve had to come up with rules around that to protect myself,” she says.

Another aspect she finds satisfying is being involved in cases where there are good lawyers on both sides.

“Someone once said ‘justice is done when you have competent counsel on both sides’.

Murder trial

“I was involved in a High Court murder trial earlier this year that took just eight days which is unusual. The case involved lots of high emotion but we were able to get on with the job efficiently because there were good defence and Crown lawyers. It can be very messy, time-consuming and frustrating otherwise,” she says.

“I’m not sure I could go back to Crown work after four years in defence. It’s hard to picture myself being back there, but you can never say never.”

Having just last week been confirmed as a partner at Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson, her role as a defence lawyer is cemented for the foreseeable future.

“I’m now officially a business owner along with the three boys,” as she affectionately calls her partners Doug Rishworth, John Mathieson and Philip Dreifuss.

“I’m their first new partner in 25 years — Phil was the last one appointed and it took a quarter of a century to find the next one.”

First Pacific Islander in the partnership

Tiana also holds the distinction of being the first woman and the first Pacific Islander in the partnership.

“I think it’s important to note those factors did not come into it when I was invited to join. It was about the best fit for the job and the firm.

“They have a strong commitment to being excellent lawyers and they saw in me the continuation of that ethic.”

The three partners say they were very pleased to offer Tiana the opportunity of joining the firm.

“Tiana is a woman of considerable ability who is a high achiever and we wanted her to join us.

“She is a very competent lawyer with considerable Crown and defence experience, at the highest level. She has also had significant success at the appellate level, in the Court of Appeal.

“Tiana has shown herself to be a potential leader of the legal profession and has strong local connections through Ngati Porou.

“Our new partnership will help us continue to offer legal services of the highest standard to our community,” they say.

“I really love the firm and the ethos. It’s such an important part of me,” Tiana says.

“The boys are, at the end of the day, just good human beings — we have common values. We all fight for the underdog and do it well. I’m proud of them and what we represent. We have a great relationship,” she says.

“Women Pacific Islander lawyers make up only 0.5 percent of the legal profession in New Zealand so I would like to think I’m part of the changing face of the legal community in this country. Some are starting to get quite senior which is encouraging.”

Changing face of profession in Gisborne

Tiana is also part of the changing face of the profession in Gisborne.

“When I first arrived here in November 2012, there were only a couple of Maori lawyers. We used to meet for lunch regularly. Now of the 60 lawyers in Gisborne, there’s a dozen Maori and Pacific Islanders and a few have been newly-admitted to the bar — that’s a good percentage. We’ve even got a netball team, and we still meet for lunch.”

Tiana says the bar in Gisborne is “very collegial”.

“In Auckland, it’s very different. There’s fierce competition for work, so it’s dog-eat-dog and gets quite nasty. Lawyers go to the prisons and steal clients from each other.

“There’s a wide divide between defence and Crown counsel in Auckland too.

“Gisborne is a small community so we have to get on with each other here. Necessity plays a big part in the good relationships we have.

“The first to congratulate me on my recent partnership was Crown Solicitor Steve Manning which speaks volumes about the relationship between the Crown and defence here.

“Every now and then, the police make a comment about the fact I used to be on their side but it’s good-natured teasing, and I take it as a compliment they don’t always like it.”

April is turning out to be an auspicious month for Tiana who this week added another achievement to her already impressive CV.

Having been the president of the Gisborne District Law Society for two years, she was yesterday elected as the central North Island representative on the New Zealand Law Society Board.

“The appointment is the opportunity to represent the interests of lawyers from some of our smaller provincial districts at a national level,” says Tiana.

“It is the first time Gisborne has had a representative on the board so it is an achievement for the district given that we are the smallest in the central north island region.”

April LawTalk

She is also on the cover of the April LawTalk magazine along with a law professor, Supreme Court judge, and partners in large commercial law firms. There’s an article inside about what makes a good lawyer.

Tiana holds a number of other offices.

She’s a member of the external subcommittee of the Legislation Design and Advisory Council which review bills before they become law.

“LDAC membership is an opportunity to be on the ground floor and have a say in legislation. The idea is to try to prevent problems with drafting before the law is passed,” she says.

Tiana is also a member of the Criminal Law Reform Committee of the New Zealand Law Society and she’s on the Women’s Advisory Panel to the New Zealand Law Society.

People often register surprise when they meet Tiana, especially some of the junior lawyers. Because she has conducted a large number of appeals on both the Crown and defence side, the name Epati is well-known in legal circles.

“Many of these cases involved weighty legal questions of general importance so young lawyers read about them while studying case law.

“They get a shock to meet me because they picture a much older male with grey hair which is the stereotypical image of the lawyers who frequent the Court of Appeal. What’s more, I live in Gisborne, not Auckland or Wellington.”

Looking young has advantages

Looking young has its advantages, says Tiana, who is married to Gisborne-born lawyer Matanuku Mahuika and is the mother of two “Ngati Porou children”, son Umuariki (8) and daughter Kuraumuhia (4).

“It seems to disarm the opposition and allows me to float under the radar. Expectations of me are low. Juries sometimes look at me as if it’s my first time in court so they feel sorry for me.

“None of those are negatives factors. If I lacked confidence it might be different, but I suppose I don’t,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Tiana believes she’s ideally suited to be a defence lawyer.

“I grew up in Samoa, came to New Zealand at the age of 11 and had a hard time trying to fit in. I was suddenly a member of a minority group and was teased because of my accent.

“My father, Semi, was a criminal lawyer who became a judge in 2002. I wanted to be a lawyer from the age of five but dad tried to talk me out of it. He knew what lay ahead and didn’t want a hard life for me.

“But I went to law school in Auckland regardless and found it highly competitive. I only had two friends and felt very lonely. I remember questioning if a career in law was really for me.

“Everyone was competing for the top jobs and my academic record was not outstanding because I was never comfortable at university.

“Pakeha males with impressive academic records from the best schools got the top jobs, perpetuating the dominance of Pakeha males, at the top echelon of New Zealand.

“I had been a confident child growing up in Samoa but lost all of that at university so I knew what it was like to be the underdog.

“But I came out other side because I had great mentors at my first workplace, Meredith Connell — they were Brian Dickey, now the Auckland Crown Solicitor, and David McNaughton, now a judge.”

How Tiana got the job at the prestigious law firm is a remarkable story in itself. She was waitressing at a high-class restaurant, serving people she went to law school with. One day, in walked Simon Moore, QC, with a group who were “difficult”.

An observant fellow, Simon noticed how well Tiana handled the situation and after finding out she had just completed her law degree, he left his business card with her boss.

The interview

It took a few days before Tiana got up the courage to phone Simon but when she did, he told her to be at his office in 20 minutes for an interview.

“Long story short, I didn’t get the original job but Simon took a risk and moved heaven and earth on my behalf. The firm created a job for me so by the time I finished my professionals, I had a position at one of the country’s top law firms.

“I was a clear outsider, never the obvious candidate for such an illustrious law firm so I had to fight for everything and prove I was worth taking a chance on.

“Someone must have been looking after me that day at the restaurant — it was a very profound moment,” she says.

Another reason Tiana says she’s suited to working in the defence area is because she’s the mother of a special needs child.

“I have an autistic son who sits outside society. His behaviour is always reactive and it’s easy to despair. I try to see the world through his eyes and not lose hope,” she says.

In 2014, Tiana was one of 10 lawyers chosen from international jurisdictions to participate in the United Nations Inter-Regional Crime and Justice Institute Defence Seminar in International Criminal Law in Italy.

“We met defence lawyers from the international criminal court who represent people charged with the most heinous crimes in the world like genocide and mass rape.

“Someone asked ‘given that 98 percent are usually guilty, why do you do it?’

“The lawyer replied ‘I am the only thing that stands between the defendant and the entire resources of the state, to ensure he or she gets a fair trial’.

“It’s like that for me,” says Tiana.

Fighting for the underdog

“I hate unfairness. Most of the clients I represent have had a hard life and need someone who is going to understand that and communicate that to the court.

“Judges want good information to make good decisions. That’s a big part of what we do as defence lawyers.

“That’s what drives me,” she says.

“My mum Trish was always a strong crusader against injustice as well. When we lived in Samoa, she was always helping out kids who were in need.

“On top of all that, I’m female . . . and only 25 percent of the top jobs in New Zealand are held by women,” she adds.

“So I suppose by virtue of birth, race, upbringing, parenthood, training and gender, I was destined to do this.”

Then there’s the personality factor.

“My parents said I was a very stubborn child who did not like being told ‘you can’t do that’. I see it as a challenge, a much more powerful catalyst than any amount of praise or congratulations.”

Outside of work, Tiana is learning to surf and is about to buy her first surf-board.

She enjoys watching foreign films and reading fiction — mystery, crime and intrigue.

“I loved English and history at school but was hopeless at maths. We had no TV in Samoa so Mum bought me a book every week and I read a lot as a child.”

Tiana is upfront and honest about family life.

“Working full-time and raising two kids is difficult. Ours is not an amazingly-easy, incredibly well-organised family life. Sometimes the wheels fall off.

“Women do each other a disservice by making out they cope perfectly all the time. I have help in the house and a wonderful nanny who cooks for the kids. I cook for Matanuku and me, but sometimes it’s just toast.”

Looking to the future, Tiana would like to see a few more glass ceilings broken.

“I’d like the New Zealand Law Society to become more representative of the legal community and a 50:50 ratio of men and women on the bench.

“And I’d love to see a Pacific Islander take silk. When that happens, I will know things have really changed.”

IT WAS a classic David and Goliath moment.

In the Court of Appeal was a senior Crown counsel with all the resources of the state arguing a case against a lone, much younger, female, Pacific Island defence lawyer from Gisborne.

It was the first case Tiana Epati had taken to the Court of Appeal as a defence lawyer and she was up against an ex-colleague from her former life as a Crown prosecutor. Tiana’s client was a gang member, on legal aid, and she was acutely aware of the difference in resourcing. There wasn’t even enough money to buy breakfast so “the boys” — her colleagues at Gisborne law firm, Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson where she has just become a partner — pitched in to help her out.

Tiana toiled alone for countless hours preparing for the case while her Crown counterpart had a team of librarians and support staff at her disposal.

But Tiana won the case and her client was released from prison within hours of the decision being released. That was three years ago and she has since conducted nine more appeals, and lost only one.

Statistically, 80 percent of appeals are dismissed so Tiana’s record is extraordinary — like everything about the effervescent 40-year-old who looks like she’s fresh from university but has been practising law for 16 years.

“Winning a case like that gave me a huge sense of achievement and made the work all worthwhile,” says Tiana.

“You could never be adequately paid for the number of hours involved in such a case but the satisfaction of winning an appeal like that against the odds is what motivates me.

“The rewards can be huge. It’s a very personal relationship you have with your client and you have the ability to completely change the course of their lives.”

Tiana’s 80 percent success rate with Court of Appeal cases is extraordinary.

Tiana left her job as a Crown prosecutor in both Auckland and Wellington after over a decade, which included nearly four years as senior appellate counsel in the Crown Law Office, and crossed over to the defence side precisely to savour those moments.

“I conducted over 100 jury trials as a Crown prosecutor and I felt privileged to do that job but the work I do now as a defence counsel is, in some senses, more gratifying,” says Tiana.

“And because of all the training and experience I gained with the Crown, I know how prosecutors think. I also know how to identify the arguments and present them in the most persuasive form. And I also know which cases are worthwhile,” she says.

“The work may be tiring, stressful, badly-paid, under-resourced and tougher than on the Crown side, but it’s never, ever dull. Everything we do involves human lives and behaviour.

“We are also dealing with people who are on the fringes of society, from lower socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I sometimes end up working for free because legal aid won’t cover it. I’ve had to come up with rules around that to protect myself,” she says.

Another aspect she finds satisfying is being involved in cases where there are good lawyers on both sides.

“Someone once said ‘justice is done when you have competent counsel on both sides’.

Murder trial

“I was involved in a High Court murder trial earlier this year that took just eight days which is unusual. The case involved lots of high emotion but we were able to get on with the job efficiently because there were good defence and Crown lawyers. It can be very messy, time-consuming and frustrating otherwise,” she says.

“I’m not sure I could go back to Crown work after four years in defence. It’s hard to picture myself being back there, but you can never say never.”

Having just last week been confirmed as a partner at Rishworth, Wall and Mathieson, her role as a defence lawyer is cemented for the foreseeable future.

“I’m now officially a business owner along with the three boys,” as she affectionately calls her partners Doug Rishworth, John Mathieson and Philip Dreifuss.

“I’m their first new partner in 25 years — Phil was the last one appointed and it took a quarter of a century to find the next one.”

First Pacific Islander in the partnership

Tiana also holds the distinction of being the first woman and the first Pacific Islander in the partnership.

“I think it’s important to note those factors did not come into it when I was invited to join. It was about the best fit for the job and the firm.

“They have a strong commitment to being excellent lawyers and they saw in me the continuation of that ethic.”

The three partners say they were very pleased to offer Tiana the opportunity of joining the firm.

“Tiana is a woman of considerable ability who is a high achiever and we wanted her to join us.

“She is a very competent lawyer with considerable Crown and defence experience, at the highest level. She has also had significant success at the appellate level, in the Court of Appeal.

“Tiana has shown herself to be a potential leader of the legal profession and has strong local connections through Ngati Porou.

“Our new partnership will help us continue to offer legal services of the highest standard to our community,” they say.

“I really love the firm and the ethos. It’s such an important part of me,” Tiana says.

“The boys are, at the end of the day, just good human beings — we have common values. We all fight for the underdog and do it well. I’m proud of them and what we represent. We have a great relationship,” she says.

“Women Pacific Islander lawyers make up only 0.5 percent of the legal profession in New Zealand so I would like to think I’m part of the changing face of the legal community in this country. Some are starting to get quite senior which is encouraging.”

Changing face of profession in Gisborne

Tiana is also part of the changing face of the profession in Gisborne.

“When I first arrived here in November 2012, there were only a couple of Maori lawyers. We used to meet for lunch regularly. Now of the 60 lawyers in Gisborne, there’s a dozen Maori and Pacific Islanders and a few have been newly-admitted to the bar — that’s a good percentage. We’ve even got a netball team, and we still meet for lunch.”

Tiana says the bar in Gisborne is “very collegial”.

“In Auckland, it’s very different. There’s fierce competition for work, so it’s dog-eat-dog and gets quite nasty. Lawyers go to the prisons and steal clients from each other.

“There’s a wide divide between defence and Crown counsel in Auckland too.

“Gisborne is a small community so we have to get on with each other here. Necessity plays a big part in the good relationships we have.

“The first to congratulate me on my recent partnership was Crown Solicitor Steve Manning which speaks volumes about the relationship between the Crown and defence here.

“Every now and then, the police make a comment about the fact I used to be on their side but it’s good-natured teasing, and I take it as a compliment they don’t always like it.”

April is turning out to be an auspicious month for Tiana who this week added another achievement to her already impressive CV.

Having been the president of the Gisborne District Law Society for two years, she was yesterday elected as the central North Island representative on the New Zealand Law Society Board.

“The appointment is the opportunity to represent the interests of lawyers from some of our smaller provincial districts at a national level,” says Tiana.

“It is the first time Gisborne has had a representative on the board so it is an achievement for the district given that we are the smallest in the central north island region.”

April LawTalk

She is also on the cover of the April LawTalk magazine along with a law professor, Supreme Court judge, and partners in large commercial law firms. There’s an article inside about what makes a good lawyer.

Tiana holds a number of other offices.

She’s a member of the external subcommittee of the Legislation Design and Advisory Council which review bills before they become law.

“LDAC membership is an opportunity to be on the ground floor and have a say in legislation. The idea is to try to prevent problems with drafting before the law is passed,” she says.

Tiana is also a member of the Criminal Law Reform Committee of the New Zealand Law Society and she’s on the Women’s Advisory Panel to the New Zealand Law Society.

People often register surprise when they meet Tiana, especially some of the junior lawyers. Because she has conducted a large number of appeals on both the Crown and defence side, the name Epati is well-known in legal circles.

“Many of these cases involved weighty legal questions of general importance so young lawyers read about them while studying case law.

“They get a shock to meet me because they picture a much older male with grey hair which is the stereotypical image of the lawyers who frequent the Court of Appeal. What’s more, I live in Gisborne, not Auckland or Wellington.”

Looking young has advantages

Looking young has its advantages, says Tiana, who is married to Gisborne-born lawyer Matanuku Mahuika and is the mother of two “Ngati Porou children”, son Umuariki (8) and daughter Kuraumuhia (4).

“It seems to disarm the opposition and allows me to float under the radar. Expectations of me are low. Juries sometimes look at me as if it’s my first time in court so they feel sorry for me.

“None of those are negatives factors. If I lacked confidence it might be different, but I suppose I don’t,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Tiana believes she’s ideally suited to be a defence lawyer.

“I grew up in Samoa, came to New Zealand at the age of 11 and had a hard time trying to fit in. I was suddenly a member of a minority group and was teased because of my accent.

“My father, Semi, was a criminal lawyer who became a judge in 2002. I wanted to be a lawyer from the age of five but dad tried to talk me out of it. He knew what lay ahead and didn’t want a hard life for me.

“But I went to law school in Auckland regardless and found it highly competitive. I only had two friends and felt very lonely. I remember questioning if a career in law was really for me.

“Everyone was competing for the top jobs and my academic record was not outstanding because I was never comfortable at university.

“Pakeha males with impressive academic records from the best schools got the top jobs, perpetuating the dominance of Pakeha males, at the top echelon of New Zealand.

“I had been a confident child growing up in Samoa but lost all of that at university so I knew what it was like to be the underdog.

“But I came out other side because I had great mentors at my first workplace, Meredith Connell — they were Brian Dickey, now the Auckland Crown Solicitor, and David McNaughton, now a judge.”

How Tiana got the job at the prestigious law firm is a remarkable story in itself. She was waitressing at a high-class restaurant, serving people she went to law school with. One day, in walked Simon Moore, QC, with a group who were “difficult”.

An observant fellow, Simon noticed how well Tiana handled the situation and after finding out she had just completed her law degree, he left his business card with her boss.

The interview

It took a few days before Tiana got up the courage to phone Simon but when she did, he told her to be at his office in 20 minutes for an interview.

“Long story short, I didn’t get the original job but Simon took a risk and moved heaven and earth on my behalf. The firm created a job for me so by the time I finished my professionals, I had a position at one of the country’s top law firms.

“I was a clear outsider, never the obvious candidate for such an illustrious law firm so I had to fight for everything and prove I was worth taking a chance on.

“Someone must have been looking after me that day at the restaurant — it was a very profound moment,” she says.

Another reason Tiana says she’s suited to working in the defence area is because she’s the mother of a special needs child.

“I have an autistic son who sits outside society. His behaviour is always reactive and it’s easy to despair. I try to see the world through his eyes and not lose hope,” she says.

In 2014, Tiana was one of 10 lawyers chosen from international jurisdictions to participate in the United Nations Inter-Regional Crime and Justice Institute Defence Seminar in International Criminal Law in Italy.

“We met defence lawyers from the international criminal court who represent people charged with the most heinous crimes in the world like genocide and mass rape.

“Someone asked ‘given that 98 percent are usually guilty, why do you do it?’

“The lawyer replied ‘I am the only thing that stands between the defendant and the entire resources of the state, to ensure he or she gets a fair trial’.

“It’s like that for me,” says Tiana.

Fighting for the underdog

“I hate unfairness. Most of the clients I represent have had a hard life and need someone who is going to understand that and communicate that to the court.

“Judges want good information to make good decisions. That’s a big part of what we do as defence lawyers.

“That’s what drives me,” she says.

“My mum Trish was always a strong crusader against injustice as well. When we lived in Samoa, she was always helping out kids who were in need.

“On top of all that, I’m female . . . and only 25 percent of the top jobs in New Zealand are held by women,” she adds.

“So I suppose by virtue of birth, race, upbringing, parenthood, training and gender, I was destined to do this.”

Then there’s the personality factor.

“My parents said I was a very stubborn child who did not like being told ‘you can’t do that’. I see it as a challenge, a much more powerful catalyst than any amount of praise or congratulations.”

Outside of work, Tiana is learning to surf and is about to buy her first surf-board.

She enjoys watching foreign films and reading fiction — mystery, crime and intrigue.

“I loved English and history at school but was hopeless at maths. We had no TV in Samoa so Mum bought me a book every week and I read a lot as a child.”

Tiana is upfront and honest about family life.

“Working full-time and raising two kids is difficult. Ours is not an amazingly-easy, incredibly well-organised family life. Sometimes the wheels fall off.

“Women do each other a disservice by making out they cope perfectly all the time. I have help in the house and a wonderful nanny who cooks for the kids. I cook for Matanuku and me, but sometimes it’s just toast.”

Looking to the future, Tiana would like to see a few more glass ceilings broken.

“I’d like the New Zealand Law Society to become more representative of the legal community and a 50:50 ratio of men and women on the bench.

“And I’d love to see a Pacific Islander take silk. When that happens, I will know things have really changed.”

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