Honorary law doctorate for ‘stellar’ barrister

New Zealand barrister Mai Chen will receive an honorary doctor of laws from the University of...
New Zealand barrister Mai Chen will receive an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Otago at a graduation ceremony on December 16. Photo: supplied
Mai Chen’s law career reads like an astonishing list of achievements, and the accolades just keep coming.

The "prominent" and "influential" New Zealand barrister will return to the University of Otago this month to receive an honorary doctor of laws, for her services to law — particularly to the practice of public law, the legal profession, and to the diversity of the profession.

It comes after being named a Most Influential Lawyer last year, being placed on the Global Diversity List Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life in 2016, and was twice a top 10 finalist for New Zealander of the Year.

After being told about the Otago award, she said it was something special.

"I felt like I had crossed a finish line, and it made me happy."

Since graduating from the University of Otago, she has become one of New Zealand’s leading legal minds in constitutional and administrative law.

She is now chair of the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business, and president of New Zealand Asian Lawyers and New Zealand Asian Leaders, all of which she founded.

"My graduation speech, which I will give in December, is all about making your unique contribution, regardless of recognition or payment.

"I have done that all my life, but this recognition feels great."

During her time at Otago, she tutored and taught as an assistant lecturer before being awarded a fully-funded scholarship to do a master of laws at Harvard Law School.

After winning a prize for her masters, she was encouraged to complete a doctorate of laws through Harvard, but she declined.

It was something she regretted — until now.

Receiving an honorary doctor of laws from Otago, where her legal journey began, meant any regret had disappeared, she said.

"The honorary doctorate means more to me because it is being conferred by the University of Otago.

"I have great respect for this university and the Faculty of Law.

"I loved the faculty and the lecturers. So many great scholars, interesting personalities and very different approaches to thinking about the law.

"I have never stopped teaching as that is what I do every day with clients and when I appear in court."

In 1994, she established one of New Zealand’s first boutique specialist law firms with former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer KC, which won many awards at the New Zealand Law Awards from 2007 to 2011.

During her career, she has handled cases involving the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and Treaty of Waitangi issues, as well as education, employment and regulatory law, and white-collar fraud.

She has also been helpful in her governance and regulatory roles on a number of boards, and has published prolifically in public law, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, MMP, and on diversity.

Otago acting vice-chancellor Richard Blaikie said the university was "incredibly proud" of Ms Chen’s achievements and the important contributions she had made to law in New Zealand and around the world.

"We are delighted that she has been able to accept her honorary degree in person at one of our main graduation ceremonies, where she will share her reflections on her stellar career with our newest graduates."