Key Points:

You know you've really made it in New Zealand when your name appears in one of the questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Just last week, a contestant on the Kiwi version of the popular television quiz show was asked to pick what Mai Chen did for a living.

The question was worth only $1000, but Jane McNamara didn't have a clue. Nor did most of the studio audience. When asked for their help, only a third recognised that Chen was a lawyer. Most guessed she was an actor, while others thought she might be a diplomat.

In fact, the audience wasn't all that wrong. As our leading public law practitioner, Chen's day job (and her night job, and her sleeping job too, I suspect) does indeed involve a bit of acting and an awful lot of diplomacy.

She can also reassure her ego that only a few months ago she was named one of New Zealand's most trusted people, in a Reader's Digest survey. That a lawyer even made the list is remarkable, although it should be noted that - somewhat bizarrely - former assistant police commissioner Clint Rickards also appeared.

Not that Chen was aware of any of this until told by others. Lately, her life has been even busier than usual, leaving little time for watching television or reading magazines.

John Key had barely completed his election-night impression of Sally Field at the 1985 Academy Awards when Chen's phone began going berserk. After nine years of what she once memorably described as "regulatory diarrhoea", her clients are desperate to know what the new kids in the Beehive are likely to do.

Even before the minor parties had finished their negotiations (she was called in to help with their final agreements), or the new Cabinet was announced, Chen was happy to give her presumably rather pricey opinion. And her clients were happy to pay. After two decades of following politics as if she were a legal anthropologist, she is, after all, known for having the good oil.

She told me 10 days ago that Rodney Hide was being talked about as the Minister of Local Government. It is, she notes, an "interesting" appointment.

Local government reform is a very big and important job, she suggests. It is also likely to be very difficult, and will probably take two terms to achieve.

But then, Key has clearly got his eye on two terms at least. The way he has managed to sign up the Maori Party, to lessen National's reliance on Act, shows he is a very quick learner, she says.

"He has really cottoned on to the MMP mindset, and I think business needs to as well."

Anyone who hasn't yet lobbied National had better get moving if they want to add anything to its agenda, says Chen. Ideally, though, anyone with a bee in their bonnet should have buzzed along to Parliament long before now.

"With MMP slowing the system down, and the fact we only have a three-year term, it's really important that you get yourself on the list of priorities, because if you're not on there it's going to be difficult. And if you are on there, it's going to be difficult to get yourself [off]."

While many businesspeople are no doubt delighted that Sir Roger Douglas is back in Parliament, Act will not necessarily have as much leverage over National as it might have liked, Chen warns.

She does acknowledge, however, that it has a done a good job of negotiating as much influence as possible. As Minister of Regulatory Reform, for example, Hide will potentially be able to interfere in every other portfolio.

Act will also have a seat on the appointments and honours committee, on the committee that reviews government expenditure, and on a leadership taskforce that determines what resources it gets.

Likewise, the Maori Party has also managed to negotiate "a pretty wide sphere of influence", with two ministerial portfolios and four associate portfolios which happen to cover many of the major spending areas, she says.

Although issues of confidence and money supply should be a breeze for National, on other issues there will be just as much consultation to get the numbers as there ever has been, she predicts.

Act, United Future and the Maori Party all have clauses in their agreements that enable them to agree to disagree on issues outside their portfolio responsibilities.

The biggest test of all could be climate change policy, which appears to be up in the air again, so to speak. Chen wouldn't be particularly surprised if National resorted to turning to Labour for support over the issue.

In any case, National will outline its plans when Parliament opens on December 9. At this stage, there is talk of the House sitting under urgency over the following fortnight.

"It's absolutely clear that this first term of Government will be no different from the first term of the last Government in 1999 - it's going to be roaringly busy. Lots of law reform, lots of policy reform, lots of reviews."

She doesn't agree with speculation that Key will leave the policy detail to his deputy. As for who will take Michael Cullen's role of Mr Fix-it, that could indeed be Bill English, or even a newbie like broadcasting entrepreneur, National Party fundraiser, and now Cabinet minister Steven Joyce, she predicts.

In the meantime, it would be a mistake to write off the Labour Party, she warns. "If you look at the nature of the candidates they brought in, this is not 1990. They are not decimated; they are not disgruntled; they're going to be pretty frisky, that lot."

Although few of the new Labour MPs have business backgrounds, and therefore do not necessarily grasp that you have to generate wealth in order to distribute it, Chen expects to see Labour under Phil Goff shift to the right - simply because that is what voters seem to want.

But just as National will change Labour while it is in opposition, so has Labour already changed National. When clients ask her if National is serious about not selling off state assets, she has to presume it is - because that is what Key has publicly promised.

"What I've said to them is: 'You have to understand that on some issues - and I don't want to sound like Rodney Hide here - that John Key was to the left of Helen Clark...

The old days of when it was Labour who intervened and National who didn't - I'm sorry, but it is National who is going to change the law so the Super Fund is directed to spend 40 per cent on New Zealand investment. So the risk is that there will be intervention."

As far as regulation goes, there's no doubt that some of the changes made by Labour have had unfortunate consequences, she says. But her main concern at present is the fallout from the turmoil in the financial markets.

She was recently in the United States, and has attended briefings here with the Reserve Bank Governor and the head of Treasury, and has some sympathy for the difficult situation they are in.

Officials faced a patient who had stumbled into A&E haemorrhaging severely and on the verge of death. "It wasn't a matter of how we go about this in a nice orderly manner. We just had to staunch the flow and keep the victim alive."

The Crown guarantee put in place to shore up confidence in the banking sector could yet cause more problems, she believes. Obviously, it isn't an ideal situation when you're not clear about what the implications of such a guarantee might be.

"The real problem for them is everyone is playing catch-up. They're trying to regulate something where the horse has already bolted and they're not actually that clear about what they're regulating; about the nature of the product and the risks involved. It's very difficult because that really means that you have to make it up as you go. And you have to suck it and see."

She understands that Treasury is now working on post-crash policy, "so I presume that is policy to get us off whatever they're doing now". But another danger is that we could end up over-reacting to perceived pitfalls in the system and end up with something like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was slapped in place in the US after Enron collapsed.

"Human nature is that we swing from one pole to another. There are some people now saying, 'I told you so'.... The difficulty is that if you swing to the other extreme then the question is, is that good regulation?"

She has been told that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is pleased with Key's victory, as he will have a good understanding of what's at stake.

While National will be somewhat distracted by the severe downturn in the economy, smart businesses will be figuring out how to play their part in the rebuild, she says. The way Chen sees it, lobbying is all about articulating your own priorities in terms of the Government's priorities.

"It's difficult because they've come in after nine years. There's a great deal to do. Everyone is rushing in there saying: 'Me first, me first; this needs to be done', and the MMP pipeline is slow."

In fact, it is so slow that Chen would love to find time to do a bit of lobbying on her own behalf over the next three years - for a four-year parliamentary term. At present, any major reform is at risk of not being achieved because of the time it takes to consult everyone, and for Parliament to thrash out all the issues, she says.

Climate change policy is a case in point. The first attempt at a carbon tax didn't survive, and the second attempt, with an emissions trading scheme, only just squeaked through in time. With a longer term, a better compromise may have been reached. Instead, we appear to be back at square one again.

Climate change is probably the most important policy Parliament has grappled with in her lifetime, says Chen, as it affects almost every sector of the economy. And the cost of starting again will be enormous.

"Think of all of the businesses, the Mums and Dads, and the sectors that are affected. They're all going to have to re-engage with the policy-making process again because essentially if [the Government is] opening it up like this, it's not just reviewing the legislation - it's reviewing the underlying policy."

Given that National has also promised a referendum on MMP, maybe looking at the length of the term will only complicate matters.

MMP is already getting simpler, as the number of minor parties dwindles, she observes. But she has no doubt that it needs further tweaking. The latest election had the highest proportion of wasted votes yet, at 6.2 per cent, and there is still some grumbling about the party lists, the 5 per cent threshold, and other details.

However, Chen would be very surprised if the public decided to dump proportional representation altogether, given the unquestionable value of the greater diversity of MPs these days. The current Parliament, for example, includes five Pasifika MPs, all of whom have impressive CVs.

If a second referendum does take place, she believes National will argue for the Supplementary Member system, which features constituencies allocated on a first-past-the-post basis, with only the list seats allocated proportionally.

It goes without saying that if the last election had been held under this system - the least popular option in the 1992 referendum - National would have done even better, and Labour would have done worse. The Greens and Act might only have three MPs each, and the others only one each.

Chen will be particularly interested to see how the Asian community reacts to the debate, "because the Asians are clearly gearing themselves up", she says. "Maybe," she laughs, "the future is coming to meet me. Maybe one day it won't be a disadvantage to be Chinese."

Until then, she is doing her bit to help the sisterhood, too. She was recently elected to chair a new "Global Women" group, which is the brainchild of several Auckland women, including consultants Faye Langdon and Justine Munro, and PR supremo Jane Sweeney. Ezibuy's Mary Devine was also involved.

The aim of the initiative is to bring together well-connected Kiwi women to mentor future leaders. The initial board includes Securities Commission chairwoman Jane Diplock, Healtheries managing director Sarah Kennedy, venture capitalists Bridget Liddell and Jenny Morel, professional director Patsy Reddy, former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, IBM managing director Katrina Troughton and publisher Wendy Pye.

To say that its first meeting was lively is probably an understatement, Chen chuckles. "They thanked me afterwards for chairing, but I think that mainly meant keeping the volume down and letting them run."

Although New Zealand has again been named by the World Economic Forum as being in the top five countries for gender parity, Chen agrees with her peers that it's no time for complacency. Despite what some people like to think, discrimination is still an issue, she insists.

Chen recently attended the 20th reunion of her Harvard law class, and was not surprised to find that of those who had remained in the United States, the white males had the best careers. White women had done the next best, while the least successful were those of other ethnic origins.

The reunion also reinforced for her the importance of international connections. One of her former classmates is now a top partner in what is arguably America's top law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore. An Australian, his job is to keep in touch with what's happening in this part of the world, and they swapped notes on what various people in New Zealand were up to.

Some days, Chen admits, it simply astonishes her that it was 14 years ago this week that she and former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer set up New Zealand's first public law firm.

These days, all the big firms - and some small ones too - like to boast about their public law credentials. It was only last year, however, that public law was introduced in the annual law awards. It was no surprise that Chen Palmer won the inaugural award, and it won this year, too - against nine rivals, including such heavyweight contenders as Russell McVeagh.

While she doesn't take such accolades for granted, Chen is not about to feign modesty, either. She knows she's at the top of her game. But she is also aware that many others would like to take her place.

As an Asian woman, too right she still has a chip on her shoulder, despite her own success.

She admits she is actually rather fond of Parliament's new Speaker, Lockwood Smith, but was upset at the comments he passed on about Asian workers. It brought back memories of one of her first summer jobs, picking fruit.

"We were a poor family and I remember getting on that bus and counting out the pennies for my ticket and then a manager came out and said: 'Right, Chinese have fast hands. Into the packing shed.'

"I had been in the law library all year and I was desperate to get outside. As it happened I was a hopeless packer and I got out of there pretty quickly. But these things happen and they don't stop happening to me now, which is why I don't forget where I've come from."

Which is Taiwan, for those who don't know. Chen was raised in a traditional Chinese household until she was 6, when her family moved to New Zealand.

Her experience of both weakness and power is helpful in public law, she suggests, given that it's all about the extraordinary powers of government versus the ordinary citizen. Fighting against discrimination all her life has also made her more creative, she believes.

Being Asian can be handy, too, when it comes to disputes between Maori and the Crown - because she doesn't belong to either tribe. "But I know how good I have to be. I have to be so good that even if you don't like women, and you don't like Chinese people, you'll say: 'Oh well, we've got to go to her because she's the only one who can get us out of this'."

Not that you'll ever catch her resting on her laurels.

The press release she issued after the law awards might have sounded just a little too gleeful. "With the prospect of a new Government and a global financial meltdown in the 15th year of the firm's operation, 2009 will bring with it many new problems in public law," she was quoted as saying. "I am looking forward to it."

She is already focused on winning the same prize next year.

"The only way when you're at the top is down, so the only thing I can do is get better. I turned 45 the other day, and that drive in me has never changed. I just want to be better, and I know I can be."

John Key, who is much the same age, is surely thinking much the same thing.

Mai Chen on ...
John Key:
"He has really cottoned on to the MMP mindset, and I think business needs to as well."

"They are not decimated; they are not disgruntled; they're going to be pretty frisky, that lot."

"With MMP slowing the system down, and the fact we only have a three-year term, it's really important that you get yourself on the list of priorities ..."

Racist attitudes:
"These things ... don't stop happening to me now, which is why I don't forget where I've come from."