NZ law firms lack diversity programmes

by Hannah Norton18 May 2015
Results of a study showing stark uptake by New Zealand firms of diversity and inclusion programmes coincides with the launch of a superdiversity law, policy and business stocktake by one of the country’s most high profile lawyers.

For prominent lawyer Mai Chen, it’s quite obvious as to why New Zealand law firms need to sit up and take notice of “New Zealand’s superdiverse future”.

“It’s hugely relevant to lawyers,” she said at her inaugural professional address at the University of Auckland on Tuesday.

The client base is changing, and so are their needs, Chen said.

“How can you plan your business when you don’t know what your customers are going to look like?

“If you want more customers, and if you want to service those customers, and improve your bottom line, there’s something you can do.”

And that something is appealing to the range of ethnicities that are increasingly making up the New Zealand demographic.

“A superdiverse society is one with over 100 ethnicities, or where more than 25 percent of the population was born overseas,” said Chen, who emigrated from Taiwan to New Zealand at a young age.

“New Zealand is superdiverse already, and the trend is towards increased superdiversity across the country.”

Chen’s address marked the establishment of a Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business to compile a Superdiversity Stocktake of key statistics and analysis to held Government, the business sector and New Zealanders in general transition to the country’s rapidly changing demographic profile.

“The Superdiversity Stocktake will review New Zealand’s law, policy settings to identify the key areas which are challenged by superdiversity, and what our current law and policy is doing to address those challenges, to ensure New Zealand sustainably benefits from the diversity dividend,” she said.

Chen will chair the centre, while Chen Palmer partner James Dunne has been appointed chief executive. On Tuesday she vowed the stocktake would be published later in the year, with assistance from the Human Rights Commission, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Auckland Council.

“I’m at the coal-face, and this is needed now.”

Diversity in New Zealand law firms

So how do New Zealand law firms fare when it comes to diversity internally? Quite poorly it would seem.

The recent ALPMA/McLeod Duminy New Zealand Legal Industry Salary and HR Issues Survey found 70 percent of the 62 respondent firms from across the country do not have a diversity and inclusion programme.

Programme adoption varies according to the size of the firm, with 81 percent of large firms implementing diversity and inclusion programme, in contrast to 11 percent of small firms.

Diversity was not only limited to race but also included a variety of policies, such as work-life flexibility, gender equality to lesbian/gay/bisexual and transsexual participation.

All firms with a diversity and inclusion programme had a specific policy for work-life flexibility, and 87 percent had a gender equality policy.

“While there are only a small number of firms to date with a formal diversity and inclusion program, it is pleasing to see that New Zealand firms are beginning to embracing the most sought after request, for flexibility in employment practices,” ALPMA NZ chair and general manager at Lowndes Jordan Sheryll Carey said.
Diversity in Australian law firms

Meanwhile, across the ditch, the Law Council of Australia has recommitted to diversity and equality and will be implementing further measures for firms to do the same.

Constituent body leaders of the Law Council and firm leaders met recently to implement a diversity and equality charter, recommitting to diversity in the profession.  Following the announcement, the Law Council will be working to implement further measures such as training, knowledge sharing tools and protocols for law firms.

“The Law Council will act as an information hub so that individual law societies, bar associations and firms can adapt resources to their particular goals and needs,” said Fiona McLeod SC, treasurer of the Law Council and leader of the recent workshop.