Renika Siciliano is the Tumuaki Wahine (Female Co-President) of Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (THRMoA) and Executive Director at McCaw Lewis Lawyers in Kirikiriroa Hamilton. She will be celebrating her 15th year at McCaw Lewis this year. Renika specialises in matters relating to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the intersection of tikanga and the law – particularly within employment law, Treaty settlement negotiations and takutai moana matters. This year’s THRMoA’s CPD webinar series sits well with that and Renika is excited to help provide content directly related to mahi with and for Māori.
Heart-led mahi and strong home ties
From an early age, Renika Siciliano says she was supported by her parents to pursue her interests and ambitions, and always give it her best effort.
“I always had this feeling that I could do anything if I put my mind to it, and that’s definitely something that I just ran with.”
Living by this notion, Renika began her career as a law clerk in 2008 at McCaw Lewis Lawyers, and has been with the firm in Hamilton for coming up to 15 years.
Describing herself as a “pretty simple, small-town girl”, Renika grew up in Tariki in rural Taranaki, went to school in Inglewood, and began studying at the University of Waikato in 2005.
“My parents are still on the family farm just around the corner from my Grandad … Hamilton was really as far as I ever felt the need to go in terms of the “big smoke” and staying there for any length of time. As much as I love travelling and spending time in big cities, it’s always nice to come back to the quiet.”
Renika is Executive Director at McCaw Lewis where she leads the Kahurangi Team – a committed team of lawyers specialising in kaupapa Māori including Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Te Ture Whenua Māori.
She has developed strong client relationships across the motu and says her work with the firm “is definitely where my heart is”.
A clear pathway to the law
“As a child I was always pretty diligent, I was a nerd, I was that kid that loved school.”
“I was a rule follower … I guess no one from school would be surprised to see how I work or operate now.”
Growing up on a dairy farm, Renika had an appreciation for farm life but, as she was teased by her brother for, she could generally be found indoors reading.
“From when I can remember thinking about what I would do, it was being a lawyer.
“One of my aunties is a lawyer in Taranaki, so I was alive to that possibility there for me and I saw that as a pathway … At school I was making logical arguments in speeches and debating – those things that people often say bring you to the law.
“There was a brief moment where I thought maybe I would be a teacher. But as it turned out, the beauty of my mahi and the firm I am in is that helping others learn and develop is key. If you weren’t able to help people learn and discover things then there’d be no point being here.
“In my view you can’t be a great leader if you can’t help teach people and pass on the knowledge.”
The drive and inspiration behind the hard mahi
In a job that often comes with equal measures of stress and demand, Renika speaks passionately about her work and what she finds rewarding.
“Importantly, what’s kept me in the law is being able to work with a really great range of clients, seeing the way that we can help iwi, hapū, and individuals, and particularly for me combining tikanga and the law and helping those to co-exist.
“Being able to relate to people and provide that service is probably what’s kept me in private practice, as I know so many people move away to follow other pathways.”
An honour and a big responsibility
Renika took on the role of Tumuaki Wahine (Female Co-President) at Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (THRMoA) in June 2022, when she was co-opted to the role mid-term. Tumuaki are generally appointed for a two-year cycle, and Renika will step down at the next AGM.
“It’s a pretty demanding role but very rewarding. Te Hunga Rōia Māori is fully volunteer-run… the Tumuaki definitely get our hands dirty … when we have our events, webinars, our annual Hui-ā-Tau which is usually a four-day conference, a lot of it sits with us to drive that and run that.
“There are a lot of workstreams though – we get to do so much which is great, but of course there are plenty of things that I forget to do with the juggle. Like anything, you do it because there’s a greater purpose and [you’re] just trying to give back and do your bit for our Hunga.”
THRMoA run a full CPD webinar series covering a range of topics. Renika explains that they don’t currently have the means to pay speakers the big fees that they may get when working on other programmes as the aim is to keep CPD costs low for members. THRMoA rely on a support network, particularly on senior practitioners, who can help deliver education and CPD to their members.
“I was fortunate enough to facilitate the first [webinar] of the year in January, which was our Commercial Law webinar from Whāia Legal and I was on such a high at the end of it.
“It was just so refreshing to hear content from our Māori lawyers but just about our Māori clients and those spaces. It was commercial law but it was focused on the work that we do every day with our Māori clients.”
With the webinars having been created by and for Māori lawyers and clients, the whole session is directly relevant to members’ and attendees’ mahi, instead of having to think about whether something works in an iwi context as “extra content”, Renika explains.
“I’m just really excited to have that all year through across different practice areas. When you combine that with our full-day seminar in May on tikanga and te reo Māori in the Courts and Tribunals – run in conjunction with the Waitangi Tribunal – and our four-day conference in August, the CPD offering in this space is something to look forward to.”
Choosing harmony over the perfect balance
Most people are familiar with the term ‘work/life balance’ and this is something many workplaces and employees are striving to achieve. Renika says aiming to achieve balance whilst also trying to be an amazing parent, an amazing director and an amazing lawyer can actually cause more stress and guilt.
“We adopted something at McCaw Lewis, where instead of talking about work/life balance we talk about work/life harmony. It came from some of our clients who shared that kōrero with us, because balance is just another thing that you’ve got to get. You’ve got to achieve the balance between work and life, it’s probably never going to happen. But as long as everything’s kind of working harmoniously and you feel alright, that’s okay.
“Sometimes there’ll be times when it’s way off kilter and work takes focus. Or whānau takes focus – and that is definitely a big part, no doubt, for all of Te Hunga Rōia being Māori and being so whānau-focused, but for our firm as well; whānau first. Work will come and go, you just keep in touch, make sure people are looked after, and it will work out.
“I have one son [Kupa], he just turned 11. I’m the chair of the board [at his primary school] and coach his basketball team. Hence why I need to have that flexibility and the harmony that we look for at McCaw Lewis, because time will go and my son in a few years might not want me to be anywhere near him! He won’t need me to coach basketball for him, or be there as much, so this is the only time we have to watch swimming sports or triathlon, or be there for school pickups.
“You can’t be everything to everyone all the time. So just do your best and be at peace,” Renika advises.
There are challenges we face every day
Renika expresses how grateful she is to have great support networks around her when it comes to facing and moving through difficult periods in life.
“I’m not really a person that dwells on or even stops to pay too much attention to challenges. They are just there and then you overcome them.” She acknowledges the privilege in that and how fortunate she is to be in her current position.
“But I mean there are always challenges in front of us every day, whether that’s being Māori, or being female, being a working parent … there are little moments every day where there are challenges.”
Renika emphasises that as humans, we are not bulletproof. A person who seems like they “have it all together” may be struggling. Admitting that or going to get help is not something anyone should feel guilty or embarrassed for.
In recent years, Renika has had her own mental health challenges to manage. “The way I have looked at that is everyone gets sick in one way or another at a time – you go and see a doctor because you’re not feeling well, and you do the things you need to do to get better.
“I’m someone that generally goes to work, I put my face on and do what needs to be done, and that’s probably not super healthy to have everyone look at someone and think well she’s got it all together.
“I look back on that time and feel proud that I actually dealt with it, and that now I’m well.”
Achieving an award-winning work culture
Renika expresses how proud she was of her firm last year, when McCaw Lewis was awarded NZ Lawyer Mid-Size Law Firm of the Year and was recognised as an NZ Lawyer Employer of Choice for 2022.
Renika emphasises how important it is to her personally, and to the firm, to be recognised for their culture and whānau focus.
“We had been trying to ensure that our culture was really genuine, and that comes through to our clients. We’re great lawyers, of course, you need to be, but that we do that in the right way because that’s part of our tikanga, to be good people,” Renika explains.
Renika recalls a recent interaction with some clients in the McCaw Lewis offices, “We all jumped in the lift together and on the way down, we just had a yarn, and … they said ‘McCaw Lewis is one of the friendliest law firms we’ve ever been involved with’, and they’d been clients of the firm for decades. It was really nice that they would say that, and a great start to the year.”
Making worthwhile sacrifices
At a general level, Renika’s son Kupa getting to witness her achievements and hard work is something that makes her proud daily.
“He knows that we work hard and there’s sacrifices that he makes too for us to do our mahi, but he can see that it’s worth something.
“He gets to meet the clients, they love him, everyone’s always asking ‘how’s Kupa?’ and asking where he is … they were so used to seeing him when he was a baby.
“I’m proud that he sees me doing important things and that he knows he’s a part of it because he of what he gives to me. He talks a lot, so he always gives feedback. He can be a bit of a life coach at times!”
If you are interested in attending the Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa CPD webinar series and other events in 2023, details are below: