Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon

Mai Chen image
Mai Chen.

In December, legal luminary and alumna Mai Chen crossed Otago’s graduation stage once again, to be conferred with an Honorary Doctor of Laws for her services to Law, particularly to the practice of Public Law and to the legal profession, and to the diversity of the profession.

Having emigrated to New Zealand in 1970 – to find she was part of the second Taiwanese family in the South Island – Mai is now a barrister, having recently stepped down from the role as Founder and Managing Partner of Chen Palmer. She is also president of New Zealand Asian Lawyers and chairs the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business. She was the inaugural chair of NZ Global Women and NZ Asian Leaders. She founded most of these organisations.

She was placed on the 2016 Global Diversity List Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life (which is affiliated with the Global Diversity Awards, supported by The Economist), and was twice a top 10 finalist for New Zealander of the Year.

At the graduation ceremony, Mai gave an inspirational address to the new graduates, and we’re delighted to share some excerpts and highlights from her speech with our wider alumni community.

To start: Van Gogh

“This year I had the privilege of visiting the great art galleries of Vienna in Austria, where I saw up close some of the world’s most famous paintings, paintings which are instantly recognisable, such as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss and Pieter Bruegel’s famous Tower of Babel or The Conversion of Paul  on the road to Damascus. Each of these artists expressed a viewpoint that was unique, and in its day revolutionary and upsetting for some whose world view was safe and comfortable. Their legacy is that we now see the world through their lens.

The key is to carry out your unique vision and be who you are even if, like Vincent van Gogh, you never sell a painting and everyone thinks you are mad and you die a pauper, with one ear. Today, they say he was the greatest impressionist artist the world has ever known. His paintings now adorn mugs, cushions, almost anything, everywhere – but he is long dead and never knew this would happen.

If he had allowed poverty and adversity to get in the way of his vision – as I suspect many of us would have – we would never see sunflowers or a starry night with the intensity and depth of the unique lens he created and left for us. And it’s the same if he had given in to the temptation to use his talent to paint conventional subjects in conventional ways. It might have made him a good living
and maybe even some fame in his lifetime, but we would never have had his true unique viewpoint.

So how do you know what your unique viewpoint is?

That is shaped by your journey and experiences – no one else has had that. I am a Chinese woman who came to New Zealand poor and not speaking English because my Dad was to train the New Zealand Gymnastics team. He was an Olympics Gymnastics coach. My mum was also an elite athlete. They met on the track. They raised us differently. We grew up at the gymnasium. We were all swim champions in Taiwan.

As a consequence, I fit none of the conventional stereotypes of my gender nor ethnicity.  I am leadership material. I am not self-effacing, nor support crew. I told Sir Geoffrey Palmer, when the Dean of Law at Victoria University told me Geoffrey would be sharing the teaching of my Public Law course after Sir Geoffrey resigned as Prime Minister and took up a professorship at VUW, that I was no one’s Girl Friday and he would have to do his own admin.

So are you brave enough to contribute your unique viewpoint?

I took a rather hit and miss approach. How else? I was young when I graduated from Otago Uni. I didn’t know anything. As Robbie Williams says in his song Eternity, “youth is wasted on the young. Before you know it, it’s come and gone, too soon”.

So I was super busy. People asked me to do things – I said sure. That is fine to a point, but time spent doing, must not replace time spent thinking and reflecting and understanding what you are really good at and what you have a unique viewpoint about – that no one else has. What you can do that no one else can. The key is to do the things you must do because of who you are, and not do the things you could do that you were never meant to do.

Remember – you can’t be busy and excellent. Excellence takes time.

Also remember that everything costs something. Even the good things. And everything takes time. I wish I had pleased fewer people. Pleasing people created detours and deviations on my route to doing what I should have been doing. It ate up valuable time.

You only really need to seek permission from yourself. Otherwise, you will be waiting for others to lift a roadblock when that’s not the route you should be on.

Three secrets of success
First, don’t wait.

I have gotten good at generating my own waves and surfing them. I can’t wait forever. I am going to die. And I do intend to live a life that I remember!

You are the sum of what you do in your life. You have the same amount of time as Nobel Prize winners, but few of us become Nobel Prize winners.

We are all flawed. But being brilliant, and a little bit deficient is a combination that is quite common amongst the biographies of people who make a difference.

It will never be perfect. This imperfect life is all we have. When one storm finishes, there will be another - it will just be different. There will always be drama, but history makes itself every day. Like a pencil, what mark will you leave? What echoes will remain long after you are done and gone?

Remember that success is not final. Failure is not fatal. Some of you may have seen the movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once, in which the multiverse allows Michelle Yeoh’s character to have endless repeat plays at the game of life, enabling her to be many different people doing different walks of life.

You can’t do it all. You will have to make choices, which means you can do some things, and not others. Not making a choice, is making a choice.

Second, you have to want to succeed.
Harvard taught me that if you don’t want it, you won’t get it. Sometimes even when you really want it, you don’t get it. But wanting it is a prerequisite to succeeding because that is what motivates the sacrifice that is invariably needed to succeed. I met a lot of dysfunctional, unbalanced, obsessive people at Harvard Law School. That’s how they succeeded, or else we would have lived normal lives.

But do not create a life you want to run away from. Don’t push yourself all the time. Your superpowers can make you – but they can also break you.

Third, you need to be the most important person in your life, so that even when everyone else is against you, you paint like van Gogh and don’t do conventional.

Being a pioneer means I have to encourage myself to do what I uniquely saw – gaps that needed a solution or an innovation, even if the result was not to the liking of my parents, friends or  professional colleagues. Listening to others would have meant that I would never have fulfilled my destiny. Left academia and set up Chen Palmer. “Immigrated” to Auckland to set up the Superdiversity Institute and NZ Asian Leaders and NZ Asian Lawyers.

You are the person you spend the most time with. So don’t run yourself down. Be honest about what you have achieved and what you have stuffed up. Be kind to yourself.

What does this Doctorate of Laws mean to me?

You have to decide when you have succeeded. You are the only one who will know when you have “done enough.” When you have “got enough.”

But this external validation of the Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Otago means a lot to me because this is where my legal journey began. Above all, I have loved my life in the law – all of it, the ups and downs, all the wiggly lines – and it’s not over yet!

Thank you for letting me know today that my unique viewpoint has made a difference. This University nurtured me and trained my mind. It is the power of our minds that makes us limitless.

To close
To the graduands, today is the day you turn your degrees into a launching pad and push off into clear air. But what if I fall? To which I say, but what if you fly?”

Legal Innovation prize: During the speech, Mai also announced the Superdiversity Institute of Law, Policy and Business is contributing a Legal Innovation prize to Otago’s Faculty of Law, valued at $10,000 per annum, for the most innovative Master of Laws, and LLB (Hons) thesis or essay written by any student beyond second year.  Teachers in charge of courses and supervising staff will nominate. The judging panel will include legal judges and luminaries educated at the Otago Law Faculty and the winning entry(ies) will be published in the Otago Law Review. More will be donated if the entries are of high quality.

Back to top