For one of New Zealand’s leading legal minds, returning to her alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate feels like crossing a finish line.
Constitutional and administrative law expert Mai Chen is set to cross the graduation stage once again next month when the University of Otago awards her with an Honorary Doctor of Laws (Hon LLD ) for her services to Law, particularly to the practice of Public Law and to the legal profession, and to the diversity of the profession.
As a preeminent lawyer referenced by generations of New Zealand law students, Ms Chen’s stellar career reads as an astonishing list of achievements and accolades that just keeps growing.
In addition to being named a Most Influential Lawyer 2022, Ms Chen was placed on the Global Diversity List Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life, in the Global Diversity List 2016 (affiliated with the Global Diversity Awards, supported by The Economist), and was twice a top 10 finalist for New Zealander of the Year.
Being told she would receive an Otago award was something special, she says.
“I felt like I had crossed a finish line, and it made me happy.”
Having emigrated to New Zealand in 1970 at six-and-a-half years old, she found herself part of the second Taiwanese family in the South Island. She is now chair of the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business, was the inaugural chair of NZ Global Women for three years, and president of New Zealand Asian Lawyers and NZ 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.”
Earlier in her career, she had regretted not taking up an offer to complete a doctorate of laws through Havard Law School after winning a prize for her Master of Laws thesis, but receiving an Hon LLD from Otago where her legal journey began means any regret has disappeared.
“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.”
Ms Chen’s career started when she graduated Otago with a first-class LLB (Hons) in 1986, finishing top equal in her year. During her time at Otago she also tutored and taught as an assistant lecturer before being awarded a Frank Knox fully-funded scholarship to continue her studies for a Master of Laws at Harvard Law School.
Reflecting upon her pathway, Ms Chen says starting her career as a tutor and assistant lecturer at Otago University was great.
“I loved the Faculty and the lecturers. So many great scholars, interesting personalities and very diferent 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.”
After winning the Irving Oberman prize for the best Human Rights LLM thesis at Harvard Law School, Ms Chen began an internship at the International Labour Organization in Geneva on a Harvard Human Rights Scholarship, and then become the youngest senior lecturer in law in New Zealand at that time at Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law.
In 1994, she established Australasia’s public law specialist firm with former Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Palmer KC . Chen Palmer was also one of NZ ’s first boutique specialist law firms.
Co-founding this public law specialist firm in partnership with Sir Geoffrey was a leap of faith considering the lack of boutique law firms in New Zealand at the time.
Under her leadership, Chen Palmer’s achievements include winning Best Boutique Law Firm in 2010 and Best Public Law Firm at the New Zealand Law Awards from 2007 to 2011.
Throughout her longstanding career, Ms Chen 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.
The teaching skills Ms Chen picked up at Otago have also been useful at the University of Auckland, where she was an Adjunct Professor at both the Business School and the Law School and helpful in her governance and regulatory roles on a number of boards, having served on the NZ Securities Commission for two terms and seven years as a director on the Bank of New Zealand Board and the Chair of People and Remuneration Committee.
In addition to running a law firm, Ms Chen is a prolific writer within the legal field, assisted by the legal writing and research skills she learned at the Otago Law Faculty. Ms Chen has published prolifically in public law, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, MMP , and on diversity. She has trailblazed by publishing on the impact of superdiversity on courts, law and policy.
She penned New Zealand’s first practice book on public law, which aims to help the public understand how the Government system works. She says that writing Public Law Toolbox was particularly important for her personally, as it provides access to information that might usually be seen as “the preserve of the elite, or for privileged insiders only”.
She has produced a number of influential reports in New Zealand public law including Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Parties in the Courts (CALD in Courts) which has been quoted by the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. She also appeared in the seminal case of Deng v Zheng  NZSC 76, where the Supreme Court issued seminal guidance on evidential issues concerning culturally and linguistically diverse parties.
In recent decades, Ms Chen has dedicated a large portion of her time to planting seeds that ensure the future of New Zealand’s justice and legal systems are inclusive and accomodating to our super-diverse-community.
Otago’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Richard Blaikie says the conferment of Ms Chen’s honorary doctorate is timely in the wake of the 150th anniversary of Otago's Faculty of Law this year, and adds to the many ‘firsts’ that have come from Otago.
“We are incredibly proud of the achievements of Mai Chen and the important contributions she has made to the Law in New Zealand and around the world,” he says.
“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.”
Otago’s Dean of Law Shelley Griffths says Ms Chen has made a unique contribution to Law in New Zealand.
“Her drive, her commitment to excellence and to others, and her passion for the Law and its practice represents the very best of an Otago Law graduate.”