At home with Mai Chen

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 12:06 04/03/2012

An immigrant whose family arrived from Taiwan with nothing, Mai Chen is one of New Zealand's highest-profile lawyers.

mai chen
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
DRIVEN: Mai Chen's Public Law Toolbox sums up 25 years of her experience at the bar and as one of the country's formost public-law experts.

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Mai Chen picks up a small silver-framed photograph of four young girls. "Bad memories," she says, before gently placing it back down.

She is 6 years old in the photograph, the youngest of the four Chen girls, newly arrived in New Zealand from Taiwan with their parents. They were poor, immigrant and could speak only a couple of words of English. In the South Island of the 1970s, that marked them out as different. Back then, that was a dark and uneasy place to be.

The photograph, a faded black-and- white one, was taken as the four little girls were about to leave for their first day at school. They are lined up at the front door, dressed identically in tidy trouser suits. They had only been in the country a short time. But they already knew what it meant to be different.

"My first day here, I remember Mum and Dad were trying to sort out the house and a nice man took us to the park. Someone was yelling at us, I don't know, 'ching chong Chinaman go back to China', whatever. We were in Christchurch. And then there was a car crash. Apparently, the guy was so stunned by seeing four Chinese girls holding hands, he crashed into the car in front of him."

School was an endurance test; even lunch, recalls Chen, was an exercise in humiliation. Rice cooked by their mother and packed into their lunch boxes was, unimaginatively, "flied lice" to their Kiwi counterparts - "and of course, Mum always gave us chopsticks to eat it with".

Come lunchtime, you could usually find the Chen girls in a huddle behind the school gym.

If it was a childhood marked by an overriding sense of being the outsider, then Chen, today, epitomises the term "insider". She is one of the country's highest-profile lawyers - wealthy, hugely successful, a woman whose contact book is stuffed full with the names and numbers of most of the country's movers and shakers. As one half of boutique law firm Chen Palmer, she started out as the unknown quantity to her famous business partner, former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. These days her name alone is enough to open doors.

But that sense of being the outsider is what stuck with her over the years; at age 9, when she and her sisters and mother were still deeply unhappy in her adopted homeland, she recalls deciding "if I had to be here, I was going to make it count".

The 48-year-old's latest project lives up to that promise. In a career spanning several decades, it is far from her only legacy, though it is potentially her most lasting and most ambitious - a book summing up 25 years of experience at the bar and the past 10 as one of the country's foremost public law experts and lobbyists.

Her Public Law Toolbox is a textbook guide to the corridors of power for all the outsiders, the underdogs and the Josephine and Joe Citizens for whom the key to those corridors has always seemed elusively beyond their reach.

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There is no trick of Chen's trade that she has kept back. In the world she moves in, it is the equivalent of giving away the secret handshake, potentially as revealing as opening up the mistress's black book, with all its secrets - or, as Chen prefers to describe it, like giving away the plans to Alcatraz.

Whatever analogy you want to use, it has been an extraordinary undertaking: A 1100-page book reviewed by some of the country's foremost business, political, legal and academic brains ahead of its publication this month, and applauded as ground-breaking and hugely empowering by all. Former prime minister Jenny Shipley even goes so far as to call it a "gift to the nation".

Chen has, in effect, open-sourced public law. Over the years, she has charged reportedly eye-watering fees to impart some of the wisdom condensed in her book. No wonder people keep asking her: "Why are you doing this?"

"If you want to know the real why of this, it is because I wanted to make a contribution," says Chen.

"Look, I came to this country as a 6-year-old. We had nothing. We didn't speak English. We were not insiders. We were about as outside as you could get.

"I found there was no way to get inside. You see, for immigrants you have to be able to read it in a book because you don't have anyone who can tell you. So having found all that stuff, I think everybody needs to know it."

She despairs when new clients come to her saying they have no money left because they have spent it all in the High Court, on a matter that could have been resolved through the ombudsmen or auditor-general.

She wants people to understand how government works, how and why decisions get made, who makes them, and why senior civil servants who, in some eyes, are a bunch of "cardigan-wearing handbrakes", actually do what they do, and why they deserve respect for that.

"And I also think that outsiders need a guide to the inside; I think it is important we do not have a system which is run on lunches, drinks and old networks."

It is a brilliantly sunny Sunday  one of those "you can't beat Wellington on a good day" mornings  and Chen is just back from a run with her 11-year-old labrador Socrates. Young son Jack is trailing behind her as she heads upstairs for a shower, running up the panelled wooden stairway of their gracious, two-storey home.

Husband John Sinclair, 50, is lugging bags of compost to a tiny glasshouse perched at the edge of their section in one of Wellington's most exclusive streets. The glasshouse  and the $2.2 million Wadestown house behind it  enjoy staggering views of the harbour.

While getting ready for the photographs, Chen tidies away the reminders of her and Sinclair's small party on the terraced lawn the night before.

It was a night to celebrate  a calm and balmy evening, and for the first time in a very long time, she wasn't working.

She finally put her book to bed the Monday before. It's a massive weight off her shoulders.

Writing it meant having to get up at 5.30am, just to squeeze everything in, and there were days she didn't get to start writing till after 10pm. Her law firm was exploding in size at the same time, as the work kept rolling in. In between, she took on an adjunct professorship.

"I don't think I have ever worked as hard ... I didn't know I could work that hard. I have worked every waking moment of my life. I ended up with a sore knee because when I wasn't sitting, I was running; I got really fit over the past year because I just couldn't work the hours I was working if I wasn't fit."

At the worst times, her husband would ask her: "Why are you doing this to yourself?" But she felt compelled to finish the book.

"Had I left it any later I would not have done it. You just get to a point in your life where you say 'I just don't want to do that anymore', and I must say I'm about there now."

Before the interview, Chen is uncomfortable with the suggestion that one of her sisters might be willing to share stories from her childhood. Her three sisters  Annie, Mindy and Angel  are all successful in their own right, Chen argues in an email. It wouldn't feel right. "Interview my husband. I have been with him 30 years."

But on the day of the interview, Sinclair, a novelist who has just had his first book accepted, is a gardener gifted with that rare thing this summer  a perfect, windless day. He tears off to the garden centre while Chen stays behind.

Chen and Sinclair met on a scripture outing. She was his first girlfriend; he was her second boyfriend, though that first relationship never got as far as a first kiss.

Committed Christians (Chen is more relaxed about her faith now), the young Asian girl and tall European shared a missionary-like zeal for doing good in the world and wanted nothing of material possessions like houses or cars and credit cards. Which was just as well, because they possessed nothing.

"The only way we could see each other was my sister, my elder sister, donated her 50cc bike so John could ride in to see me from Mosgiel. John was doing his PhD in English literature, in poetry, which is not necessarily supportive of a good paying job. Because actually what he wants to do is write poetry and write novels, which, of course, doesn't earn anything. When we got married, my sister, my other sister, gave us a microwave. So we owned half a microwave each. We had no money."

On their wedding day, Chen wore a ring for which she had scraped together the money herself.

So when she won a scholarship to Harvard  a number of scholarships actually, including one that paid for her husband to accompany her  it was "such a big deal for us".

Harvard was an eye-opening experience.

"I expected to go and find a whole bunch of really well-adjusted, successful people, you know? So I went and I met a whole bunch of hugely successful, beautiful people.

"They were physically beautiful, they were also champions in other things, they were the golf champion of France and, you know, just happened to be top of their law class. And they were all just obsessive-compulsive  because if you weren't, why would you work that hard? You'd have a normal life, wouldn't you?"

As someone who landed at Harvard with an obsessive-compulsive determination to succeed herself, it is not too big a stretch to assume that Chen fitted right in. "I did rather. A lot of them came from unusual backgrounds; there was a reason why they were motivated."

It was a new experience for Chen. At Otago law school, where she topped her class, being the perpetual outsider nearly caused her to drop out in her third year. "Because I didn't fit, you know? Everyone came from mummy and daddy's law firm. And I was always asking questions ... like, why is the law like this?"

After Harvard came a human rights scholarship and the first big step on what could have been a prestigious international career, working in Geneva for the International Labour Organisation.

"But, I'm not a bureaucrat. I wasn't cut out for that scene ... I was there at the crack of dawn, the woman who was supervising me would come in via her chauffeur-driven car at 10am, she had her au pair, they would break for lunch at 12pm, have a very long lunch, come back at 2.30pm and they would leave about four.

"I need to be somewhere I'm engaged and where people really want to be doing what they are doing."

She was drawn to the idea of returning to an academic career "because I thought there might be other people like me who thought they had nothing to contribute to the law because they didn't fit".

Ultimately, however, the decision to return was her husband's.

"Because it was his turn. He'd been padding around the world after me. He got a job back here and wanted to come home."

Chen applied to Victoria University and was very quickly a senior lecturer. But at 29 came the decision that if she didn't make the break for private practice then, she never would.

"My parents were completely devastated. They didn't talk to me for two years. I know they thought I'd gone mad. I mortgaged the house."

She hadn't expected to stay in private practice long  "I just wanted to see whether it was different."

But then Palmer, whom she had met through their work together at Victoria University, came to her and said: "Let's start this thing."

"I said to him: 'Why choose me? Why don't you choose another old white guy?' "

Palmer's response was that no-one else would be mad enough to take it on.

"I said: 'I've only just figured out how to fill out a time sheet and use a Dictaphone.' He said: 'No, it's got to be now.' We set up Chen Palmer and it just took off."

Since Palmer left in 2005 to head the Law Commission, the firm, still carrying the name Chen Palmer, has doubled in size.

If Chen puts her success down to anything, it is to never being expected to make much of herself at all.

She was doubly cursed as both an immigrant and the fourth girl in a Chinese family, "which, you know, wasn't great in Taiwan".

"People don't seem to realise. I know that I'm no-one, I was born no-one, I was the fourth girl in a Chinese family, I wasn't ever supposed to be anyone.

"My dad spent a lot of time on the first two girls because he thought they were going to be great.

"But actually the last two? I don't think he learnt my name. So I wasn't ever meant to be anything, because, you know, they wanted to have a son and I understand that."

So she always knew that if she was going to get anywhere, it was going to be under her own steam.

"My mum and dad had made it very plain to me what my future held. They said: 'We are Chinese, you are a girl, we have no money. You have to do it for yourself'."

But after a lifetime of crashing through roadblocks, refusing to be stopped by obstacles and overcoming the odds, that burning drive to push herself to the limit to prove herself might have nearly run its course. She is, she suggests, happy with her lot.

A few months ago, when the couple celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary, Sinclair presented his wife with a pen and a piece of paper.

"He said: 'Here's a piece of paper; write down everything you want to do.' "

The sheet of paper, Chen says, is still blank.

"There's nothing on it. I've done everything I want to do now. We have worked really, really, really hard in the first 30 years I've known John and the great thing is that the fun is the next 30 years. I don't have anything else I want to do."

That doesn't mean an end to work  but it does mean an end to the 18-hour days, the punishing seven-day-a-week schedule, and betting against the clock for time with her family.

"I feel like I've finished a pie-eating competition; I want no more pies."

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