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Mai Chen

Mai Chen

Mai Chen is the Managing Partner in the law firm Chen Palmer, and is one of New Zealand’s top lawyers, particularly in the field of public law. We sat down with her to talk discrimination, diversity and the difficulties of balancing her demanding work and busy life.

Interview by Nicola Hoogenboom & Annette Azuma


Q: Why did you become a lawyer in public law?

A: My family had come to New Zealand and I had experienced discrimination at an early age, so I became interested in power, who had it, how you could regulate it and how the state could intervene. I came into public law through an interest in discrimination and human rights, which was fine as an academic, but once you enter private practice, you don’t do that much human rights and discrimination work, unless of course you specialise in employment. We do specialise in employment law, but the reality is that most of my career for the last 30 years has been focused on advising business on all sorts of regulation and law reform, judicial review, and government inquiries.

Q: Have you found more discrimination as a woman or in terms of diversity?

A: That’s what I’m working on right now, the Diversity Matrix: What Diversity means in the 21st Century, which follows the Superdiversity Stocktake. The Stocktake was very successful, with over 100,000 downloads of the report. It is clear that there is a big gap and I think that a business needs to be applying a superdiversity framework to its clients and their needs and to staff and their needs. And of course the two are symbiotic, if you’ve got clients who need cultural under-standing and the ability to be communicated with in different languages, it’s equally important that you’ve got staff capable of meeting those cultural and language needs. The real issue is that New Zealand is changing demographically and ethnically and, in Auckland in particular, it has already transformed, so coming up here to live has been very important for understanding that.

The Diversity Matrix is about the fact that we tend to look at single issues, like gender or ethnicity, but actually there is a compounding effect for people like me, because I am a coloured woman. So if you look at all of the statistics, for example pay equity, you’ll find that coloured women are right at the bottom. The pecking order in terms of who is paid the most to least is white men, white women, coloured men and then coloured women. So we all come as packages. People suffer discrimination because of combinations of disability, age, sexuality, nationality, culture, ethnicity and religion, and other grounds. I would like to refresh the vision of diversity in the 21st century. I think we need to have a different approach to diversity.

Q: How do you think New Zealand is doing in terms of diversity?

A: I think New Zealand is doing alright, but the trouble is that we fell into superdiversity more by chance than by design. Now we need to be more deliberate about ensuring we maximise the benefits and minimise the challenges. Instead of just seeing it as a human rights issue, which it is, or an ethnicity issue, which it is, or a gender issue, which it is, we need to see it as an issue affecting our economy and affecting the success and growth of business and talent. Not an hour ago, I was in a room with marketers, who were trying to get their heads around marketing to a completely ethnically different client base. In New Zealand your client base has changed and so you need to change with it. What do these New Zealanders need? What do they want? How do you best service them? How are their expectations different because they come from very different countries? In Auckland at the moment, 44% percent of the population were not born here. What implications does that have for recruitment? I would have thought fundamental.

Q: What difficulties have you faced along the way?

A: Being a woman has its difficulties, but it’s been compounded by also being Chinese. I have found being Chinese a lot more difficult because you are so visually different. A lot of people think that I have spent my life trying to be different, but I’ve just spent my life being me. Sometimes people have said that “you don’t toe the line” and I just say, “well tell me where the line is and I’d happily toe it”. It is just that when you come from somewhere very different you don’t have the same perspective, you’re not trying to be difficult, it’s just that you see things differently.

Q: What do you feel would help aspiring female lawyers?

A: I think that success is the same for everybody. I am an Adjunct Professor at the Auckland School of Law and run a Top Practioners Series. We had Lady Deborah Chambers QC speaking recently and I asked her, “what are the characteristics of a great lawyer?”. She said that you need to be tough, you need to endure, you need to know how to fight in the trenches, you need to work hard, you need to be courageous, and you need not to be afraid of fighting back. Law is a difficult profession and if you don’t have those characteristics, then you’ll find it hard to succeed. Obviously if you encounter a few more barriers, whether it’s sexism or racism or both, it doesn’t help, but you just have to wake up in the morning, put on your suit, go to work, and do your best.

Q: Do you find it easier now that you’ve made your name and people look up to you?

A: I’m still subject to the same slings and arrows as everyone else. If you cut me, you will find that I still bleed the same way. It isn’t easy, doing what I do. The work I do is often last resort, other lawyers have a go, if it doesn’t work, it turns up on my desk. I get a lot of requests to help people and it is hard to meet the need, but I try my best.

Q: Do you enjoy what you are doing?

A: I think I am used to very challenging work. I think that because of my background and because of the fact that from the age of 6 when we immigrated to NZ, nothing was easy, I have a high tolerance for difficult work. It is difficult for a woman, because if you’re a tough lawyer, they say “she’s a bitch”. But you say to yourself, if I was a tough male lawyer, would I get the same treatment? Well look, at the end of the day I don’t think about gender or race. The mark of a great lawyer is that you can “sail in all weathers.” Regardless of what happens, you’ve just got to make the best of it. Clients only come to you if it’s “jam-side-down”, if they had been able to fix the problem themselves, they would have.

Law is interesting and balance is hard to achieve with the rest of your life. The difficulty is that quite often my load is one difficult thing after another. And as managing partner of the firm, people arrive in your office when there is a crisis. There are days when everyone is in your office yelling at each other. So yesterday, for example, I just decided to go to yoga. I thought that was just the best way of saying to myself “I’m doing something for you Mai”. So I did. I went to Yoga and I had a good night sleep.

Q: How do you maintain a good work/life balance?

A: You are involved in three marriages in your life, the first to your work, and my marriage to my work is pretty healthy.

Then you have a marriage to your partner and to your family. I am spending a lot more time there. I have just celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary. There are some things in life that give you the greatest happiness and you realise that you don’t spend as much time there as you should. At the end of the day, when I die, my clients will be a bit upset, then they will go and find another lawyer. My staff will be a bit upset, but then they’ll go and work for somebody else. But actually my family will be very upset, and they give me the greatest joy.

And the third marriage, is to yourself. Now, I’ve never had a marriage to myself because that was the one you skimped on. If you had to stay up late to spend time with your husband and family and to finish your legal work, you did that, you skimped on exercise or sleep. I never ate properly because meals are one area where you can save a lot of time. And often when I work very hard I forget to eat, which is extremely good for my figure!

The reality is that over time, you realise that you need to have all 3 marriages in good working order, because other-wise you just burn out. I am spending more time on self-care than ever before.

Q: What are your proudest moments?

A: I was very proud celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary, I’m very proud of the fact that my family has made a good contribution to our adopted country. I am very proud of the fact that I love my family and we get on very well. I am proud of the fact that I do a lot of pro bono work and that it’s been successful and good for New Zealand. When I got top 10 finalist at New Zealander of the Year, twice, I was proud of that.

Q: Who do you look up to?

A: I derive inspiration from everybody. We have to energise ourselves, I have to derive inspiration every day. I try to do one thing for myself every day. Tomorrow it is a walk with my husband. Today it is visiting my favourite dressmaker.

Q: Do you have any style tips for women who want to be successful in Law?

A: Clients expect you to look nice and I’ve decided that looking nice is important to how you feel. I think it is important to dress for yourself. Because when you feel good, you are better at advising people. I am wearing less jewellery than I was, but buying more signature pieces of clothing. I don’t buy a lot, but I buy stuff that I love and I wear it a lot. I have a beautiful tan-zanite ring that I wear every day. I figure if I wear it every day, it only works out to $5 a day! I have an Apple watch now. It is marvelous. It tells me everything that I need to know and with it, I don’t need a PA.

This morning I had 45 minutes to run the dog, make sure my son had his lunch, feed the dog, shower, dress and get out the door to take Jack to school in time for band practice. So I need a lot of outfits that look good with no effort. If you put on a black dress, you can grab a great jacket and you’re away. Just make sure you’ve got matching jewellery.

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