New Zealand Law Society - Lu'isa Latimer-Toetu'u: Discovering meaning, cultural identity and motherhood

Lu'isa Latimer-Toetu'u: Discovering meaning, cultural identity and motherhood

Lu'isa Latimer-Toetu'u: Discovering meaning, cultural identity and motherhood

A young Māori and Tongan mum with two small children, Lu'isa Latimer-Toetu'u feels privileged to have joined Community Law South Auckland as a Solicitor to contribute to its commitment in serving the community.

The accident that paved the way into the law profession

Disabilities come in different shapes and forms but in some cases they’re often non-visible. Lu'isa had always set her eyes on becoming a doctor until an accident which caused blindness in her left eye when she was in high school. Although she has overcome the discomfort and inconvenience, it took considerable time and effort to be comfortable with relying on single eye vision in her daily life.

Unfortunately, the loss of vision also meant that the career options available to her were soon narrowed down and her dream of becoming a surgeon proved extremely difficult. However, a keen interest in History gave her the confidence to consider a career in the law profession and saw her being accepted into Part II Law at the University of Auckland through its Undergraduate Targeted Admission Schemes for Māori students.

Finding identity in law school

Lu’isa never thought that law school would be the place she would begin to discover her true sense of identity. “I think finding your identity in law school can be quite difficult but for me if it weren’t for law school, I don’t think I’d have found my authentic self.” 

Before Lu’isa’s great grandfather, Sir Graham Latimer, passed away in 2016, he was monumental in the space of politics and law, especially during his nearly 40-year involvement with the New Zealand Māori Council. He played an instrumental role in challenging the status quo and improving Māori rights. He was also one of the first members of the Waitangi Tribunal.

However, Lu'isa was not aware of the full extent of her great grandfather’s legacy from home, nor was she exposed to any political or legal subjects in her upbringing. “I actually learned more about the work that my great grandfather did at law school. At home and throughout my upbringing as a young child my Grandpa Latimer was just that, my great grandfather. At law school however, I was able to see him in a different light and from the many perspectives of others young and old.” Lu'isa says.  

The Undergraduate Targeted Admission Scheme (TAS) provided support and relevant activities that allowed Lu'isa the opportunity to develop beyond the academic field and connect with cultural roots that were left unturned in high school. She expresses that in hindsight she was particularly thankful to the then professor Khylee Quince for her strong guidance and opportunity to be admitted through the scheme.

“The first time I met Khylee was at my TAS interview. I was somewhat intimidated by her, in a good way, she has a very strong presence. I didn’t realise it at the time but when Khylee asked me specific questions regarding Te Ao Māori I think she knew that there were doors unopened there for me personally and I was in denial about that. I had never been urged to think about why I was simply standing outside those doors and not walking through them so to speak.

“I remember leaving the interview feeling all sorts of emotions. I had never been so unsure of myself until then. Khylee has a very special way of connecting with her students and peers and whether she intended to do it on purpose or not, I don’t know; what I do know is, that moment was a catalyst for me in so many ways. My life at law school and now as a mother and a lawyer have been transformed because of Khylee being that catalyst for me,” Lu’isa says.

Being the best mum I can be

Raised in a whānau oriented environment, Lu'isa had always envisioned to establish a family of her own at a young age but overlooked factoring in her career aspirations. In what was meant to be her last year of the degree, she found out she was pregnant in the middle of the second semester, having already signed up to five papers and a summer internship at EY ahead of time.

Despite the arrival of her first child, she had no intention to give up what was already on her plate and continued to hope for the best. The immense pressure from all directions inevitably led to some terrible exam results and the challenges did not end there. Lu’isa went on to graduate with her Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Commerce Conjoint degree one year later while carrying her now, 2-year-old daughter, and went on to complete her Professional Legal Studies Course while caring for both her children full-time.

The births of her two children gave her a new appreciation of what it means to live a purposeful life. “Once you’re a mum, your children become your world and everything you do revolves around them. I had pictured a career in a commercial setting but being a mum made me question what I can commit and give purpose to while being the best mum that I can be.”

A job that’s worth the time away from my children

“It takes a lot to spend time you would otherwise dedicate to your children elsewhere,” Lu'isa says. This was one of the key factors that drove her to enquire into her present role at Community Law South Auckland. When asked about if she was able cope with a demanding job, her answer was straight and clear, “I love being a mum, but I have more to offer. If I’m going to spend time away from my children, I need to be doing something where my time is valued just as much.”

The work at Community Law South Auckland falls naturally in line with who Lu'isa is and who she’s been raised to be. She describes her team as people driven by acts of service and a desire to serve the local community.  

Community Law South Auckland is located at the centre of Otara where residents come from diverse backgrounds and sometimes with a low level of English literacy. Things are often lost in meaning and don’t translate the same way between different languages. To make sure the community is represented, understood and comfortable in what they’re going through, the staff at Community Law South Auckland adopt a tailored approach to their work, with the capability to communicate with most Pasifika, Māori and Hindu speaking clients in their mother-tongue.

For Lu'isa, it’s an indescribable experience that outweighs the pay when they can help someone who has no expectations of achieving a desirable outcome but is worthy of one. “You’re doing the majority of the work for free, but they’ll come back and cook a meal for you or bring their family and sing a song to thank you.” Lu'isa says.

“The South Auckland community that we serve often feel they’re undeserving of what they’re asking for when in fact, the service they need and the access to justice that they require is actually a human right,” Lu'isa stresses.

“Sometimes it is the simple act of helping them to fill out a form that they don’t understand that means the world to them. Being able to assist with those everyday tasks or appear for someone in court who didn’t think they had a chance, it’s time for me well spent away from my children.”

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