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Isabella Wilson on why representation matters in the law
03 September 2021

Isabella Wilson on why representation matters in the law

Published on 03 September 2021

Tēnā koutou katoa,

Ko wai au?

Ko Tainui ko Māhuhu ki te Rangi ngā waka
Ko Waitematā te moana
Ko Waikato te awa
Ko Taupiri ko Maungakiekie ngā maunga
Ko Te Hoe o Tainui ko Ōrākei ngā marae
Ko Ngāti Mahuta te hapū
Ko Waikato ko Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei ngā iwi
Ko Isabella Tekaumārua Wilson au.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou katoa.

Isabella Wilson was the first in her whānau to go to university. Her mum, keen for her daughter to get a strong start in life, steered her towards law or medicine. Isabella didn’t much like the thought of working with blood, so she moved to Wellington to study Law and Chinese at Victoria University, where she served as co-president of the Māori Law Students Association. Insights spoke to Isabella about studying law, working as a Māori Law Student Advisor, and as a young professional, working as an Assistant Crown Counsel at Crown Law, in the Treaty Team.

Moving into law as a Māori lawyer

Journalism was initially on the cards for Isabella, but her mum worried it was a profession that would not be as financially stable as law or medicine.

“I enjoyed the English-based subjects at high school, so I decided to study law,” said Isabella. “Looking back at the conversation with my mum, I know she only wanted the best for me. I was the first person in my whānau to go to university and to my mum, being a lawyer or a doctor was the ultimate form of success. This is not true, but I could see where she was coming from.”

She was grateful her mum encouraged her to study law.

“Within the first two years of my law degree, I started to realise how much I could help my whānau, hapū, iwi and tangata Māori across Aotearoa with the skills and knowledge I was collecting at law school,” said Isabella. “My new found but strong desire and moemoeā for better outcomes for Māori in all aspects of life continued to motivate and inspire me to put my best foot forward in my studies, and now in my career as a young professional.”

During law school, Isabella served as a 200 Level Representative, Social Officer and Tūmuaki Wāhine of Ngā Rangahautira, the Victoria University Māori Law Students Association.

“In the final two years of my degrees (LLB/BA and LLM), I was employed full time as the Kaitakawaenga Ture, Māori Law Student Advisor, at Victoria Law School,” said Isabella.

“In all of these roles I provided holistic support to Māori and Pasifika law students, which included organising academic and social events, supporting students through difficult periods when their study was impacted by personal issues, such as mental health or a death in the whānau, and advocating for our Māori and Pasifika students in dealings with academic and professional staff.”

“This mahi was extremely rewarding. When I was a timid first year I remember the support and kindness I received from Ngā Rangahautira, the Pasifika Law Students’ Society and the Kaitakawenga Ture,” reflected Isabella. “As I became a more senior student, I knew I had an obligation to support and look after our teina, the same way I was looked after when I was a first year.”

She strongly encourages any Māori and Pasifika law students at Victoria University not already involved with Ngā Rangahautira and the Pasifika Law Students’ Society, to get involved.

“Ngā Rangahautira and the Pasifika Law Students’ Society became my home away from home, and I know I would not have gotten through law school and profs without their aroha and support!”

Ki te kotahi te kākaho, ka whaiti; ki te kāpuia, e kore e whati.” (This translates to: If a reed stands alone, it can be broken; if it is in a group, it cannot.)

Helping the Crown to be an excellent Treaty partner

“I currently work at Crown Law in the Treaty Team as an Assistant Crown Counsel”, said Isabella.

“Our team provides legal advice to government agencies on Treaty issues and represents the Crown in court proceedings that relate to the Treaty, and in the Waitangi Tribunal,” explained Isabella. “Crown Law is a great place to gain invaluable legal skills and experience. Two interesting matters I am working on at the moment are the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry and the Housing Policy and Services Kaupapa Inquiry. The purpose of these inquiries is for the Waitangi Tribunal to look into Crown actions and omissions within the Wāhine Māori and Māori Housing areas and recommend solutions to produce better outcomes for Māori.”

However, she admits that being Māori and working for the Crown in the Treaty space can be very challenging.

“Māori perceptions of the Crown can be quite negative due to the historical oppression of Māori by the Crown,” explained Isabella. “Sometimes when I tell other Māori I work for Crown Law, their response can be one of confusion, sadness or even disgust.”

“However, I know my ‘Why’. I’m working in this space to achieve better outcomes for Māori. We need Māori working in ALL areas, whether that be working for your iwi, a private law firm or a government agency. In all the mahi I undertake I try to provide a young Māori perspective and influence change from the inside.”

Despite these challenges, she finds the work extremely rewarding.

“I love that I am working in a Treaty/Māori space,” said Isabella. “All aspects of my mahi involve a Māori element, and I am continuously upskilling in my knowledge of te reo, tikanga and mātauranga Māori. Sometimes I can get a bit disheartened when I see the Crown making decisions or implementing laws and policies that are not created with a Māori lens, or do not consider the views of Māori. However I always need to remind myself of the bigger picture: I, alongside many other Māori and Pasifika, are working for the Crown so we can encourage and help the Crown become an excellent Treaty partner.”

Learning practical skills - and writing killer memos

She credits her Professional Legal Studies Course (Profs) experience with The College of Law as helping her master the practical elements of daily legal work absent from her law degree.

“Studying Profs involved a lot of practical elements – most of which I had never done at law school,” said Isabella. “Before studying profs, I had never taken part in a mock negotiation or witness examination. I had never written a memorandum.”

“I was able to practice these skills, skills which I actually needed for my job, in a comfortable and supportive environment. Now I write killer memos, if I do say so myself!”

She understands the apprehension with which law students, who have just finished years of legal study, might feel towards undertaking their Profs.

“I was one of those students! We’ve spent 5, 6 or even 7 years of our life studying for a law degree, and now we have to go do another six months of study?! That sucks! However, the practical skills you learn during profs will be extremely valuable for the mahi you will undertake as a lawyer. So, make the most of Profs and put your best foot forward for all your assignments and assessments. It is an added bonus that the Profs lecturers are really cool and caring,” said Isabella, who gave a special shout out to her Profs lecturer, Jude.

“Another tip is to try and register for Profs with a friend or friends,” advised Isabella. “It is much less daunting walking into class if you have a friend with you.