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Engaging diversity over a coffee

07 September 2009

This article first appeared in NZ Lawyer magazine on September 4 2009.

Despite New Zealand's size, our legal profession of some 10,500 lawyers appears less than diverse. Firms seeking to improve that diversity find their options limited as the law schools from which young lawyers are sourced are themselves devoid of diversity. One 22-year old law clerk is working to change that - and all it takes is a meeting over coffee.

Chapman Tripp's Mike Forster, a graduate of Linwood High School, one of Christchurch's poorest schools with a decile rating of two, left behind many of his friends when he went ot law school - friends for whom university was never on the horizon. An underlying sense of guilt was triggered into action last year when his girlfriend took her young cousins to the Sky Tower. "It was the first time they'd ever been to Auckland from South Auckland in their entire lifetime," he said. "They had come to the Sky Tower, and eaten an ice cream, and gone back. I mean it was a totally different world. How does somebody like that compete against somebody where both their parents are lawyers, they've gone to Epsom Girls or Kings or whatever?"

At Forster's school, the dreams and aspirations of many students quickly gave way to life's realities - teen pregnancies, drugs and gang fights. "If everybody around you is setting their goals at a particular level and their hopes for themselves are at that level, it's very hard to think and unusual to think that, 'Oh, I'm this much better than all of them. Screw what they're doing, I'm going to take over the world'. People just don't think like that," he said.

With the realisation that law students were no more intelligent, curious or hardworking than his high school friends, Forster developed "Professional Pathways." The programme provides the opportunity for young professionals to meet with high school students with the potential to go to university. It's a very modest programme, he said. All that is required of the participants is that they sit down for a coffee or lunch and haveĀ a chat. It's not about mentoring or nurturing anyone through university, it's simply about expanding their options and showing them the benefits of a university education. "How can you be motivated by a reward you don't know exists?"

Professional Pathways has grown significantly from its early days. It began with Forster calling schools at the beginning of this year; eight months later, he's in touch with every decile one school in Auckland. The momentum is growing - simply by word of mouth, and undoubtably through Forster's passiona and enthusiasm for connecting with talented students. It now has about 40 doctors and lawyers onboard, and the programme has spread to the Waikato, Otago and Rotorua.

Forster's vision is simple: it's about sitting down with these students, talking and listening to them, and answering their questions. "That's so powerful if you're a young person," he said. "To have someone interested and rooting for you and just curious about who you are and what your dreams are, especially if it's someone you respect. It's just an intensely emotional experience."

For more information on Professional Pathways, go to www.professionalpathways.co.nz. If you would like to join Forster's team of professionals, he would love to hear from you.

For more information, contact our Web Editorwebeditor@chapmantripp.com+64 9 357 9622

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