Sunday Star Times: June 16, 2016
You could have heard a pin drop as top legal eagle Stacey Shortall asked a room full of people: "Who did you help today?"
The silence was audible.
Shortall was standing behind the podium accepting the community and not-for-profit category of the Women of Influence award in 2015.
"I was not expecting to win and had no speech prepared so I asked the audience what I ask my children every night at the dinner table: 'Who did you help today'?" I didn't say it to make an impact. It was just a simple question," she says.
"I think it's a good question because anyone can answer that, your circumstances are irrelevant. I think if we had four and a half million of us every day in New Zealand answering that question positively then we could create a bit of movement."
A NEW MOVEMENT
It would have been pretty clear to anyone listening that this was someone who was out to change the world, one deed at a time.
Her speech got people thinking, she says from the lofty Wellington legal chambers of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, where she is a partner. People came up to her afterwards asking how they might help.
In the same way the "pay it forward" concept caught on, that simple question has gained momentum and is fast becoming a movement. It's about connecting skilled people with not-for-profit community projects. Using an electronic platform, skilled volunteers are matched with community projects depending on their interest, capability, location and availability. Simple as that, she says.
Many of those interested in making a change got involved with her Homework Help Club, where Shortall and volunteers from Minter Ellison Rudd Watts help kids from the Holy Family School in Cannons Creek with their homework.
That altruistic brainchild came about as a way of connecting back with the community, says Shortall, who previously spent more than a decade working at a top Wall Street legal firm.
"One of the things that struck me when I came back from New York in 2010 was that there had been silos created here. Less mixing in communities. I believe in a national community - we are all the richer for spending time with each other."
It was an utterly grassroots concept, says Shortall - a 43-year-old mother of four children.
She simply looked up decile one schools and plucked Holy Family School in Cannons Creek as a starting point.
"I was aware that there were a lot of decile one primary schools there. I knew it was a community where there were a lot of parents working hard, sometimes doing multiple jobs which made it difficult for them to be available to their children in the evenings. I was also confronted with the fact that in the large law firms we didn't have the diversity that I thought we would have when I started out in my career."
For the past two and a half years, she and her colleagues - not just lawyers but marketing staff, business development and support staff, even the company chef - have been spending one afternoon a week at the school helping pupils with their homework.
The response from kids has been memorable, she says. It's got them dreaming big.
"Kids started talking to us about wanting to be a lawyer, about going to university. One kid said to me 'I don't want to be a lawyer, I want to be a judge'."
The school has since enveloped the Homework Help Club into a learning hub where parents, grandparents and volunteers from various professions go in to help the children three days a week.
After the rewarding experience at Holy Family School, Shortall began to roll out the Homework Help Club. She now has support from other legal firms, corporates, architectural firms, government departments and universities to partner a decile one school.
The volunteer programme has now been rolled out to 10 schools in Auckland, Wellington and the Manawatu and the hope is to provide help to any decile one school that wants it.
Shortall says there has been mutual gain with staff at the law firm and the children themselves.
"It's been really enriching, just being reminded of how much talent and potential there is in the children of this country. There can be socio economic factors that can create gaps between communities but they are easily bridged. Homework Help Club has become a really easy way for people in our firm to connect back into the community."
She's quick to point out that the kids already have plenty of role models - parents, grandparents and teachers. But if meeting people who have different careers than perhaps these kids might otherwise encounter makes them think a little bit differently about what they might consider doing when they get older then that's great, she says.
Shortall herself is not from a family of lawyers or university educated parents. She was raised on a farm in Colyton, just outside Fielding in the Manawatu with her two sisters and brother.
Her parents, Margaret and Perry Shortall, were always involved in the community, she says. Always willing to help others but not making a big deal out of it.
"I just observed that. It was just part of what you did. What matters is helping others. What matters is what you do when no one is watching."
She thought she might be a farmer when she grew up. She guffaws at the very idea of that now. She wouldn't have been a great farmer, she says.
When a primary school teacher suggested her love of a good argument might lend itself to legal career, she paused for thought.
She had certainly always had a sense of fairness, of justice - or injustice, she says with a belly laugh.
FROM WELLINGTON TO THE BIG APPLE
While she honed her sharp mind studying law and accounting at Victoria University, she indulged her other great love - sports. She ran marathons, played and coached tennis (even fleetingly considered this as a career), played netball, worked as a gym instructor and bizarrely, competed in ultimate frisbee, for which she was a ring-in for the 1994 world champs in Colchester, England.
With a Rotary scholarship she did an LLM in indigenous self-governance in Alberta, Canada. On her way back she stopped in New York. Manhattan immediately grabbed her. The chaos and energy of this melting pot of a city was intoxicating to the young and ambitious graduate.
"I wanted to be a trial lawyer, I liked talking. I liked the idea of jury trials because I like people and telling stories. I like the facts more than the law, in some ways."
She gives another roar of laughter and a slap of the boardroom table with that last line.
She returned home and worked at Rudd Watts and Stone for a few years before an opportunity arose for a job in the Big Apple.
"I had no money but the firm paid for my flights. It was mid-winter in New York and I had no winter clothes so Susan Thomas, now a high court judge, lent me her coat."
She scored a job with top Wall Street firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.
She would spend the next decade at the firm travelling the world working as a litigator representing firms like Enron and Lehman Brothers before their collapse. It was high pace bet-the-farm type of litigation, she says.
She became heavily involved in pro bono work, particularly with the Incarcerated Mothers Project running in the medium security women's prison in Manhattan.
She joined a group of Wall Street lawyers once a month helping incarcerated mothers reconnect with their children.
At the same time she volunteered at the Immigration Court where she worked with African refugee women who had been raped and tortured. She did research work for the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda on genocide as a war crime. On a six week sabbatical to Ghana she worked with an NGO dealing with issues around violence against women and kids, and for the Ghanaian Police Force prosecuting child rapists.
While she was living Stateside, Shortall became a mother and adopted three of her four children.
Kate and Thomas are seven, born just 11 weeks apart and Ethan is three and a half. They were all adopted as babies. Soon, a new little sister will join the family.
Shortall will travel to Mizoram in northeast India next month to collect 17-month-old Puipui.
She was moved to adopt a girl from India after the horrific story of the young woman brutally gang raped on a bus in Delhi.
Adopting as a single parent did not present any particular difficulties, she says. In fact, she'd encourage other people to consider doing the same.
"I have always wanted a big family. I am from a big Catholic family myself. I always thought I'd have kids and I had in my mind that if I hadn't met the right man at 35 who I wanted to have a family with then I wasn't going to miss out. So I got to 35 and I decided to make my family by myself."
As Shortall says, she's a great talker, but when it comes to her children she's loathe to tell their stories for them. But her enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of adding to her family is palpable. But that's it, she says. The family is now complete.
When she returned to New Zealand in 2010, Shortall joined her old firm and, after flitting between the US and NZ for a few years, she and her family settled in Hataitai.
Her rise in the legal profession has seen her named 2015 Lawyer of the Year. Her work representing the Pike River directors has been high profile.
Despite her schedule as a partner in the firm and the demands of motherhood, Shortall has continued with her volunteer work with inmates from Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri. Based on the incarcerated Women's Project in New York, she and fellow lawyers visit women once a month. One of the things they try to do is help reconnect them with their children when the connection has splintered.
"I saw from the work and research we did in New York with the Incarcerated Mothers Project … enabling children and mothers to to maintain a meaningful connection has a whole host of benefits, first of all, for the children, because they feel more stable knowing they have not been left. For the mother, research shows it decreases the likelihood of her reoffending, it helps with her reintegration into the family unit and can take away some of the stress that might otherwise be a trigger back into some of the issues that might have led to the offending."
Reconnecting families, bringing communities together, Shortall will have no problems answering her own question at the family dinner table tonight. "Who did you help today?