A Day in the Life of / Life / Life after law school

A Day in the Life of… an Associate specialising in Māori legal issues


Name: Rachel Mullins
Job title: Mum; Associate
Employer, city/country: McCaw Lewis Lawyers Ltd, Hamilton
Length of time in current role: 7 years
Where and when you studied law: Otago University – 1997-2002

Describe a typical day in your job?

Well, depending on whether the stars have aligned and my children have behaved determines what time I get out the door…I spend the drive from home in Te Awamutu to the office in Hamilton thinking about my priorities for the day.  These can obviously change in an instant with one phone call, one e-mail, one client meeting – if unexpected things happen for a client that need your urgent attention.  Rarely are my days the same which is what keeps the job interesting.  My specialist areas are the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal and I am also involved in our firm’s estate dispute work.  I feel very privileged to work in quite a specialist area building relationships with clients that have some amazing stories to share.  I spend my time drafting and reviewing legal documents (evidence, submissions, trust deeds), providing legal opinions for clients, preparing for hearings in the Māori Land Court or Waitangi Tribunal, and reading technical research reports and historical Court records.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by experts in different areas of the law that I can bounce ideas off and ask for advice on different matters to ensure my clients are getting the best all round service.


How did you get into this job?

When I left University I fell into a job at the Ngāi Tahu Māori Law Centre in Dunedin by accident really and it was there that I got my grounding and love for Māori Land Law.  Since I was a 3rd year law student I have always attended the annual Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa (“THRM”) /New Zealand Māori Land Society Hui-a-Tau/Annual Conference where I met Māori law students from other Universities and Māori law practitioners, judges and academics.  Those relationships have been fundamental to me throughout my career.  When I decided to return to the North Island in 2005, it was that Māori Land Law experience and those relationships from THRM that provided me with an opportunity to apply for a position in the Māori Legal Team at McCaw Lewis Chapman (as we were then) under the leadership of Stephen Clark, now a Judge of the Māori Land Court.


Are there particular study subjects or working experience you would recommend to prepare for a similar role to yours?

As I understand it, the Universities vary in what “Māori legal” courses are on offer – but I would recommend that those with an interest in the Māori Land Court and Waitangi jurisdiction take the papers that are offered in that area.  However both the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal are civil jurisdictions so general civil procedure and advocacy papers are also valuable.  New Zealand History papers would also provide a helpful background.  As there are only a small number of practitioners and firms that specialise in these areas, I would recommend becoming involved in THRM and attending our annual conference to get to know those already practising in the area and start to build relationships.


What are the highlights of the job?

The main highlights for me are characters that you meet and the privilege you receive of being trusted with their stories so that you can shape them into evidence or submissions to present to the Court or Tribunal.  In the Tribunal you spend many years working with a particular claimant community – you learn their histories, get to visit places that are significant to them and for the most part go on their journey with them.  In the Māori Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal te reo me ona tikanga are all part of the process and it is empowering to be able to practise in that environment.


What are the challenges of the job?

One of the challenges that I find difficult is the length of the process.  A Waitangi Tribunal process takes years from start to finish and sadly along the way some of the kamātua and kuia you started the journey with are not there to see the outcome.


What kind of personal qualities are suited to this job?

First and foremost: a good work ethic.  Waitangi Tribunal work especially requires many hours of work, a lot of travel, weekend work and time away from whānau.  Secondly, the ability to build relational trust – with your colleagues and your clients.  The process is a long one and therefore the relationship must be strong and built on mutual respect.  You must also have a passion for this area of law as it can be very intense and all-consuming at times – so you must love what you do!


What one thing do you wish someone had told you at law school?

I wish that we had learnt about the business of law, about managing a file and about managing client expectations.  A huge part of the job is administration and client management and not just the application of the law.


Any other advice for law students wanting to get into a similar role?

Start making connections with practitioners in the area while you’re at law school.  Approach firms asking to do work experience, go and sit in on a Māori Land Court sitting or Waitangi Tribunal hearing to get a feel for the jurisdiction.