By Maria Sopoaga
Earlier this week, I shared on another online platform - how very millennial of me! - my initial frustrations about a disappointing encounter I had at the District Court on Monday. In fairness it is sometimes so much easier and cathartic to share things to strangers on the internet because at least that way it's not 'real.' But if I'm being completely honest with myself, it’s one of those things that will probably stay with me for as long as I navigate my legal career, and most likely even beyond that.
By way of background, I was due in court at 10am for a short matter I was appearing on; an appearance that ended up taking less than a few minutes to be heard from start to finish. In any case, I headed down to the court to meet my client beforehand and arrived some time before he did.
On arrival, I was stopped by the court security officer at the doors who asked me what I was there for. I promptly told him I was appearing in the list at 10am. He asked me for a name, to which I noted that my client’s name would likely not be on the list he had as it was being heard in the civil list. He asked me again for a name, and I gave him my client’s surname which as I had expected, was not on the list.
From there, he said that I should wait outside and call the court number listed on the outside of the building. I thought this was odd, but had seen him give the same instructions to another woman who was just ahead of me in the line. I figured it was some kind of Covid-related process, so I stepped back outside to call the number.
As I started dialling the number in my phone, I saw a couple of sharply dressed men approaching with their trolley bags; a sure sign that they were lawyers. They breezed past where I was standing, and sure enough the same corrections officer who addressed me happily waived them through into the building. Having seen this, I again addressed the officer and stated that I was also a lawyer, looking toward the two male lawyers who were now being processed without even a second glance or being stopped or questioned in the way that I was. The corrections officer seemed surprised and asked me if could repeat myself. I advised him again that I was a lawyer here to appear in the list at 10am. He responded jovially saying that when I had said “appear” he thought that meant as a defendant. I felt my blood boil and my heart sink all at once.
He responded jovially saying that when I had said "appear" he thought that meant as a defendant. I felt my blood boil and my heart sink all at once.
I didn’t want to make a scene; I still had a client to meet, an appearance to make and I hadn’t really had the chance to process what happened. The only thing I could say in passing to the officer was that next time, he shouldn’t make assumptions. He laughed it off uncomfortably.
In spite of the situation, I still had a job to do. Still trying to navigate my initial frustration about what had happened, I finished my appearance in what felt like a blink of an eye. I am grateful for my lovely client who didn’t know what had occurred earlier but nevertheless lifted my spirits with his kindness and thanks. I also acknowledge the senior counsel who told me I did a good job as I left the courtroom. Those little moments provided some momentary reprieve at a time that on reflection, I was feeling really small and alone.
I headed back to the office, still angry about the encounter but acutely conscious of the meetings I still had to attend, documents I still had to prepare and emails I still had to send. I still had a job to do. Plus at this point it’s somewhat of a running joke with Pacific legal practitioners (and I suspect for our fellow Māori lawyers too) about being mistaken for defendants in court - I guess we reached some mutual agreement that it can’t hurt you if you joke about it eh? Gotta love classic poly humour (if you know you know)!
I sat in our usual Monday team meeting and pushed it to the back of my mind, ready to get on with my work, resigning myself to the idea that while I was angry about what happened, it would be something I’d probably only talk about with my circle and would probably laugh about later, especially because I knew it was something a couple of my closest friends had also experienced in the past. Most importantly, it wouldn’t be something I’d bring up at work. Not at all because I don’t feel supported by my organisation, but because I didn’t want to be “that” girl; the one who complained about something that probably wasn’t a big deal. "That" girl who would always need an extra hand because she's "different."
I spoke to my boyfriend about it, in the usual way I rant to him about everything and anything (that’s what they’re there for right?) and he told me to really reconsider my thoughts about not telling my partner. He told me that it was not okay for me to be made to feel like the officer made me feel that morning. As I sat and tried to get on with my work, while I felt the outrage within me slowly subsiding, what began to grow and replace the initial anger were feelings of humiliation. Embarrassment. Intimidation. Hurt.
As I sat and tried to get on with my work, while I felt the outrage within me slowly subsiding, what began to grow and replace the initial anger were feelings of humiliation. Embarrassment. Intimidation. Hurt.
I finally plucked up the courage to type out a text message to my partner, mainly on the basis that if it was something that could happen to me it could happen to another person, lawyer or otherwise. I have serious respect for my partner and she has been so incredibly supportive of me in the past few days, absolutely outraged by what had happened. She has been an ally in the truest sense of the word and immediately sought to take the responsibility of addressing the situation off my shoulders, supportive of whatever extent I wanted to be involved or if and how I wanted the issue to be addressed.
The next day, after allowing me the time to process everything, she checked in with me again, noting that she had some thoughts about some tangible next steps. She had even corresponded with my great friend and mentor, who also (unsurprisingly) threw her hands up to awhi me and take serious action to address the situation. This prompted me to reflect on the first time I ever heard my mentor speak in public, sharing that the biggest obstacle she had faced in her entire career was her treatment as an ethnic minority. She spoke about her time as a younger lawyer, going into an elevator with a senior member of the profession, and him stepping aside at the floor of the building where immigration was on because he had assumed that she would be getting off there, and not acting as counsel in his case. And for a woman who has achieved so much in her career, it spoke volumes that this was an encounter that has stayed with her decades afterward.
By this point almost 48 hours on, it dawned on me that I actually harbour no ill feelings toward the officer. I slowly begun to turn the mirror onto myself and started to think about all the what ifs - What if I was wearing something different? What if I was holding one of those trolleys like those other lawyers? What if I spent some more time on my hair or makeup that day? What if I used more inflection in my voice? My reflections on the encounter made me realise that the situation forced up to the surface all of my most profound insecurities about being in this profession - about not belonging; about not being seen for my worth because of what I look like; about always feeling like the “other.” That had my senior colleague come with me that morning, we would’ve been waived in like those other lawyers. That if my secretary - who happens to be a Pākehā male - went to the court, he’d most likely be waived in too. That despite how "confident" I may outwardly appear, there are moments almost every day that remind me I am not the norm.
My reflections on the encounter made me realise that the situation forced up to the surface all my most profound insecurities about being in this profession - about not belonging; about not being seen for my worth because of what I look like; about always feeling like the “other.”
So, as I headed home, I sobbed.
I sobbed thinking about the meeting I had with some other clients, and wondered if they thought I was just a secretary there to take notes. I sobbed thinking about the “pity” I might see in my colleagues' eyes if I told them what had happened. I sobbed thinking about them having to walk on egg shells around me if I shared what had happened. I sobbed thinking about the members in my community who come in contact with the courts, but don’t have the privilege of having some incredibly influential women go in to bat for them without even a second thought. I mean, how can we expect our most vulnerable to access justice when I can’t even get in the building?
How can we expect our most vulnerable to access justice when I can’t even get in the building?
I sobbed thinking about my Nana’s joyous face when I was admitted as a lawyer in 2018, but that that the esteem and joy of that occasion didn’t prevent me feeling so small and unimportant that morning. I sobbed thinking about the accolades I'd received in the past few years, and how they didn't count for anything in that moment. I sobbed thinking about the years my family put into keeping me safe, but that they couldn’t keep me safe from this.
But, in spite of everything, I still have a job to do. And while it’s been a week of long days, large workloads and tearful evenings still navigating the emotions about the encounter, I’m reminded that I am unfortunately not the first person this has happened to, and I’m almost certain that I won't be the last.
So I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and awhi all my fellow brown lawyers in Aotearoa who’ve held back tears at their desk after a similar experience. Those who’ve felt invisible or diminished. Those who’ve felt unworthy and small. Those who've driven home exhausted not only by their work, but by the "game face" they've had to put on all day. Those who have toiled for years to start shifting that dial. Those who continue to get up in the morning and fight through the obstacles only known to us, and others like us.
Thank you for your sacrifices. Your resilience. Your patience. Your service. Your heart.
"Fa'atuatuana'i mea ua tuana'i, ae tuli i luma se 'ai."
This alagā'upu (Samoan proverb) was shared by my former Samoan language teacher around the time of the Dawn Raids Apology in August. It acknowledges actions or events that have happened in the past that cannot be changed, but encourages us to use those events as motivation in moving forward for a better future.
And while deep down I know will never forget what happened, it will serve as a constant reminder that we've still got work to do.
Re-published here with permission from Maria Sopoaga
Hailing from the villages of Tulaele and Nofoalii in Samoa, Maria is a solicitor in MinterEllisonRuddWatts’ Dispute Resolution team in Wellington, New Zealand. In 2019 she was the inaugural New Zealand recipient of the Centre for Legal Education’s Young Legalpreneurs Scholarship, and in 2020 was named by NZ Lawyer magazine as a Rising Star in the legal profession. During her time as inhouse legal counsel at Auckland Council, Maria also served as the Deputy Convener of the Auckland Young Lawyers Committee, and was recognised by the Inhouse Lawyers’ Association of New Zealand’s with the Community Contribution Award in 2021 for her contributions both in the profession and in the wider community. She was again recognised by NZ Lawyer in 2021 as one of New Zealand’s Most Influential Lawyers, and currently serves on the executive of the Pacific Lawyers Association.