Lawyer Lanu Faletau was just selected as an Obama Foundation Leader. She tells us how it happened, what it involves, and reveals how she got to where she is today.
The inspiring Lanu Faletau is a lawyer, model, activist and mentor who has been on our radar for a while now. It seems like we weren’t the only ones to notice her; Lanu was recently selected for the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific Program and will travel to Kuala Lumpur in early December to take part in the event, which will include Barack and Michelle Obama – as well as other prominent leaders and speakers – discussing progress, opportunity and leadership in the region.
It’s a huge achievement, so we thought it timely to ask her about her career journey to date, why it’s so important to have diverse representation in the field of law, and how she uses her wardrobe to navigate all the different facets of her busy life.
Why did you decide to pursue law? And what is your specialty?
I’ve always had a passion for advocacy and have always been quite analytical since I was a child. Being really vocal about what I believe in, and never really thinking twice about questioning things I didn’t believe was right made law a natural choice. I knew that by studying law, I would be provided with the tools and confidence I needed to advance my advocacy skills, not just in the law but generally. In terms of my specialty, I predominantly work in criminal litigation and enforcement.
When did you first know you wanted to practice law?
Quite honestly, I was always intimidated by the prospect of being a lawyer, I felt like it was a lot of responsibility I wasn’t prepared for. I didn’t know for sure that I was going to practice until after finishing my master’s degree in law. It took me that long to finally feel like practicing was something I wanted to do, and once I realised that I went straight in.
Can you tell us about your role as an Obama Foundation Leader?
The Leaders: Asia-Pacific Program builds upon the legacy of the Obamas, with a focus on shared values and ethical leadership. The training is informed by the [foundation’s] work with young leaders from Chicago to Johannesburg and beyond – and with the guidance and insight of 21 leaders from 16 countries in Asia-Pacific who have helped design the upcoming Leaders program.
In terms of what I will be doing specifically, we haven’t been told the details just yet, but I know that we have an incredible line up of speakers which include President Obama and Michelle. After Malaysia [where 200 emerging leaders from 33 nations and territories across the Asia-Pacific region will gather in Kuala Lumpur], I will be engaged with the program for a year after the convening. I assume that the mentorship and guidance I will receive from the program will build on my community involvement and areas of interest.
I have a strong interest in advocating for underrepresented communities and encouraging higher education, in particular for the Pacific community. I am hoping that through the tools and knowledge I receive from the program that I will be better positioned to continue my work. In terms of selection, I am subscribed to the Obama Foundation and have been following the Obama’s and their legacy for so long. When I saw the application online, I applied and thankfully I was selected.
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Why is it important to have lawyers from Pacific and Maori backgrounds?
This is a multi-faceted question that holds so many important reasons. However, one of the reasons, for me, is to inform our Pacific and Maori communities that they are not alone and yes, there are many people out there who care, can relate to them and can understand.
The Pacific and Maori communities are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. There are so many issues within that fact, but to keep this short, I really believe in the notion that “if she can see it, she can be it.” The more our Pacific and Maori communities see others like them in this sphere, the more I hope they feel encouraged and empowered to also join the sphere as a lawyer too. Even beyond, I hope they feel empowered just generally to be anything they want to be.
Another reason why it is important to have lawyers from Pacific and Maori backgrounds is so that they can be a voice for their communities. I feel there is certainly a responsibility as a Pacific lawyer to be a voice for those who feel voiceless. I think the best way in doing this, is not only through advocacy and representation but by giving back any way that you can.
How did you get to where you are today?
Through my family. Firstly, my Mum and Dad’s unconditional love and belief in me really made me believe that not only could I do what I wanted, but I could succeed in anything I set my mind to. This type of love and support is something I really needed because I dealt with a lot of crippling self-doubt and insecurities growing up. I am so lucky to have been supported in this way by my parents and I feel so blessed to have my parents as my parents. Having them as the foundation of who I am really stabilises me and has directed a lot of the decisions I have made both personally and professionally. If not for their love, support and faith in me, I feel like I would have really struggled to persevere through the tough times that felt too hard to get through.
Secondly, I have amazing role models in my family. My maternal grandma is one of the hardest working women I know. Even to this day, at 79 years old, she is still working and the astounding thing is… she doesn’t need to! Her work ethic and willingness to help those in need is unmatched by anyone I know. I really draw a lot of inspiration from her and I feel blessed to have her in my life. I think growing up with this type of role model pushes you to have a better work ethic and to strive for better and to work harder!
Lastly, my extended family and all my friends. Their support and encouragement mean the most to me; probably more than they realise. They have really helped me get through the tough times and to continue with what I want to achieve.
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How will increased diversity change the legal landscape?
It certainly changes the perspective. In terms of the legal sector, it has been predominately informed by western, middle to upper-class males. I think the shift in perspective will broaden the approaches in law and certainly inform the approach the law takes in the future. We are already seeing this with the acceptance of cultural reports in sentencing. My friend who is also a lawyer, Natasha Murden, actually did a lot of work on this and I was lucky enough to read and see its developments through her.
Who do you admire most in your field and why?
I really look up to strong females in this field. Judge Soana Moala is someone I not only draw inspiration from but also look up to. She is a Tongan female as well, and every law talk I’ve attended and had the honour of listening to her speak has always left me feeling more empowered.
I also look up to my own colleagues and friends; for instance, my friend Reina Vaai who is not only a lawyer but also a journalist and author amongst other things; I feel like we connect a lot about struggling to balance a career in law alongside our passions. I look up to my friend Ruth Malolo who is a Samoan lawyer because we struggled together, grieved together and yet here we are continuing the work we love to do, even when we were in the face of adversity. I also look up to my friends and lawyers Meggan Steer and Natasha because they both do amazing work but have had so many challenges and yet they are still there to support others but also do the best work they can do.
I look up to all the females who have mentored me, from my first manager to my team leader to all the seniors I’ve had an opportunity to learn from. As you can see, I admire a lot of people for different reasons and I love that I have so many diverse groups of people to draw inspiration from in this field.
What is your biggest achievement or proudest moment to date?
There have been a few moments, but my proudest moment would have to be having my Mum watch me graduate at my undergraduate ceremony. She was so sick that night and she still found the strength to come and watch me graduate. She even cheered for me and yet she could barely speak. Seeing how beautiful she looked and how proud she felt of me is one of my most treasured moments in my life.
It is my greatest honour in my life to have graduated and obtained my degrees and have my Mum and Dad there to share that moment with me. My Mum is the reason I have the strength to do what I do.
How do you define success?
Success to me is… continuing after failure.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to pursue a career in law?
As cheesy as it sounds, my advice would be to be yourself, persevere through the hardships and to have confidence if your capabilities. I also think it’s important to always remember that whilst the law is a privilege to work in, it is a job and like every job, you need to maintain a balance with just enjoying life.
What has your experience modelling been like?
So far, it has been a lot of fun. Modelling has been an unexpected but very welcomed blessing. I love working with new people and seeing their creative minds play out through film or photography.
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What about modelling do you find rewarding or enriching?
I love meeting new people and connecting with such a diverse range of souls. Modelling is enriching in a lot of ways, but for me, getting to see the creative process of projects and then being part of it in a small way is always so much fun.
How does fashion or style relate to your daily life, with regards to how you present yourself professionally and/or express your identity?
My wardrobe is almost like different characters. Professionally, my wardrobe is so much more sophisticated than what I naturally lean towards. When I am in my suits and corporate attire, I know that I am being a lawyer. Being in a suit almost gives me the confidence I need to express myself as a lawyer. There is nothing more empowering than expressing yourself through your clothes, like a nice dress suit and a pair of heels in court.
In terms of every day, I am pretty chilled out about what I wear. I love to wear things that are practical, fashionable and comfortable. Of course, the undertone to that is the mood I am in; some days I feel like being a little bit risky with my wardrobe choices, other days I am more conservative.
My wardrobe also helps me express the context I am in, there are specific items I wear for certain occasions i.e. wearing a kiekie to church or a ta’ovala to a funeral in Tonga. Despite acknowledging how context informs wardrobe, I am not one to feel obliged to rules about attire regardless of what culture may require, I see beauty in the choice to wear beautifully crafted items for the culture and I embrace that aspect of it.
Who are your favourite local designers?
I am absolutely in love with Trelise Cooper. I love everything she designs and find myself adding to my wish list every time I check out her new ranges. Twenty-seven Names is more chilled out and minimal, and their designs are what I wear on a day-to-day basis. I really love Karen Walker; her designs are so classic and I love her accessories, especially her sunglasses. And Marle: not only are their designs wonderful, but I love that their clothes are made from natural fibres and fabrics.
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What motivates you?
My goals, my fiancé and of course my family.
How do you deal with negative feedback?
I don’t let it deter me from what I am trying to pursue, but I do let it inform me to some degree. If the negative feedback is constructive, I try to take it on board and do better. If it’s just negative and said out of malice, then generally I just dismiss it and carry on with what I am trying to do.
At the end of the day, no one can stop me from pursuing something but me, and it would be a disservice to myself and others if I let the negative feedback of others stop me. I can say now; the negativity of others will always be used as motivation by me and will never be a deterrent to what I want in life.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up at about 5.30am most days, get ready for the day, have my coffee and then try to get to work before 7.30am. I like to start earlier than everyone else because I can get the small tasks of my job out of the way and then prepare for the day ahead. I also like arriving in the city when it’s quiet and not quite awake yet; it feels more peaceful arriving before everyone else.
Depending on the files I am dealing with, I am either researching, writing submissions, prepping files, negotiating, liaising with relevant people, attending meetings, or in Court. It is very analytical and different every day but that’s what I love about it.
I also model and usually I will do this after work if I can. During fashion week I was literally finishing work and running to hair and makeup. The thrill was exciting, and I find that modelling really helps to keep my perspective about work light and fun.
You’ve already achieved so much, what’s next for you?
I really want to do more community work and hopefully start initiating my own community projects soon. I feel like with my education, experience, and passion for this work, that I am in a better position to feel confident about doing this. Prior to this, I have always felt unworthy of doing my own thing because I felt like I still had so much to learn and to work on. I am optimistic that the tools, knowledge, networks, and experience I gain from the Obama Foundation, will give me the fundamentals and the confidence to finally initiate projects I have been thinking about doing for so long.