Meet Tiana Epati, criminal defence lawyer and the new face of law in New Zealand.

At 43 years old, Epati is the youngest person and the first of Pasifika descent to be appointed President of the New Zealand Law Society.

"Some days it feels overwhelming and I don't want to let anyone down," she said. "There are a lot of people in the profession who for the first time who feel like there's someone they can relate to, and they get hope. And I don't want to let those people down."

Epati was born in Adelaide to an Australian mum and Samoan dad. She spent her early years in Samoa, moving to New Zealand when she was 10.


Not surprisingly the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree - Tiana's dad was A'e'au Semi Epati, the first Pasifika judge in Aotearoa.

"From a really early age I watched what he did. He won a scholarship to go to Otago University. He didn't learn English until he was 16.

"So he went to Otago, and he studied law, and he came back to Samoa, and he was very much about helping his people, for just helping people full stop.

"He would take the hard cases, the ones no one wanted. Or the difficult cases, like the contention for the right of women to vote. In Samoa at the time, it was only men who could vote.

"So from an early age I saw him making a difference, doing good things and that was inspiring for me."

Epati spent a decade in Auckland and Wellington as a crown prosecutor and then as a associate crown counsel, moving to Gisborne seven years ago with her husband and children.

She campaigned for the city to have its own judge, and now Gisborne has two resident judges.

But president of the law society? It was never her plan.

"Two years ago someone said to me, what about being the president? And I thought that's not going to happen. But i think, slowly and surely, a lot of encouragement from people within the profession, a lot of male champions for change which was really amazing, and they said you can do this. So I said okay, 'lets see'."


Despite all her achievements, Epati says she still faces constant discrimination.

"It will be the jokes made about coconuts or Pacific Islanders, or that my names always spelt wrong. It's that sense of othering, the 'you the us', the 'you don't belong' that can be the hardest because it can be constant.

"You have to make a decision whether you say something or if you don't. When you're younger and you don't feel as able to do so ... I get this a lot from young Māori and Pasifika. Do I have to call it out every time? No, because that takes energy.

"Sometimes you have to be pretty direct. Like 'do you understand how deeply racist that is?' and other times it's going to be a conversation around 'I know you may not have intended this but this is how you made me feel'."

Despite the hurdles, she says the future for Māori and Pasifika peoples in law is bright.

"I feel like this new generation of Māori and Pasifika lawyers, they seem more confident to me. They seem better placed to speak up and speak out. "

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