As New Zealand edges closer to 22 weeks of paid parental leave, three wahine toa — whose South Auckland law firm combined babies and work - look at how they became pioneers in the workplace. Teuila Fuatai reports.
King Alofivae Malosi was never going to be your typical law firm.
Headed by La-Verne King, Ali’imuamua Sandra Alofivae and the now Judge Ida Malosi, KAM as it is also known, was the brainchild of three young women who “wanted it all”.
“We’d see each other at court, and thought, maybe we could actually look at practising on our own,” King said of the trio's early career days.
After a string of meetings and bonding trips, all three signed on to be founding partners of their own firm in 1994.
“In those first few years, we realised we wanted to change the perception of law firms,” King said. “We were brown women serving the needs of our local community — South Auckland — which even then was predominantly brown and a melting pot of legal issues.”
As young mothers, a significant part of this was ensuring KAM was family-friendly — both for the partners and other staff.
“We had our own nursery at our office in Ōtāhuhu,” King pointed out proudly.
“I recall returning to work when my boy Kapeni was only about three months old. I had to go straight into a two-day hearing in the Ōtāhuhu Family Court. I would rush back to the office during breaks and feed him and leave him with [our office administrator] Mel.
In seven years, we managed to produce 13 babies between us and our staff.
Alofivae, whose laughter seems to have spurred some of King's recollections, reeled out some of the firm's more interesting metrics.
“At our biggest, we had about 11 lawyers, six staff and a whole wad of kids. In seven years, we managed to produce 13 babies between us and our staff — people used to joke there was a chair in our office that you would sit on and get pregnant.”
Balancing children and the practicalities of business also led to one of the KAM’s cornerstone policies.
“We put in place for ourselves a paid parental policy, and then we got smart and thought about how can we could do that for our staff," Alofivae said.
The firm’s paid parental leave policy — brought in before it was legislated in 2002 — was initially seen as a huge incentive by staff, particularly because KAM’s tight margins did not always allow for large employee pay increases.
“That was a practical response on our part to what our real needs were at the time,” she said of the firm's decision to implement paid parental leave.
“We had actually been doing that since we had our first babies — so that was our norm.”
“When we found it difficult to find employment, we wanted to create an atmosphere that was embracing of our women and we took affirmative action — that’s why we didn’t necessarily employ men and a whole lot of other cultures. That was our way of trying to give back to our communities."
King, Alofivae and Malosi also chose to hire only Māori and Pasifika women.
“When we found it difficult to find employment, we wanted to create an atmosphere that was embracing of our women and we took affirmative action — that’s why we didn’t necessarily employ men and a whole lot of other cultures. That was our way of trying to give back to our communities,” Alofivae said.
The trio’s efforts were also recognised by their own legal peers in 2000, when KAM received an award from the Auckland District Law Society for its innovative, equal employment opportunities approach.
Two years later, Malosi was called to the bench.
“It was a real poignant victory, because whilst we were celebrating her elevation, it also brought on some anxiety and sadness that she wouldn’t be in the office with us anymore,” Alofivae said.
Malosi, who is New Zealand’s first Pasifika female judge, reflected on the process around her rise.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you two — not only in letting me go, but making me go,” she said to her two former partners.
While KAM no longer operates as its own law firm, with King, Alofivae and Malosi officially parting ways about 10 years ago, the three women have remained great friends.
“Ultimately our journey has been about sisterhood — it’s been a love story, and it’s been about Māori and Pasifika working together,” Malosi said.
“We were invincible together - there was nothing we wouldn’t do for one another, our children grew up together and our children now drink together,” she said to laughs and cheers from her two long-standing friends.