How lawyers can begin changing the profession for good

by Sol Dolor05 Oct 2018

New Zealand’s legal profession has needed a cultural change for far too long, says Dr Maria Pozza. The first steps to change are not as difficult or as complex as they may seem at first glance.

But to be crystal clear at the outset, change in the profession is not a mere option that could be exercised; it is a fundamental necessity that must be exercised and one that should have started a very long time ago, she says.

Pozza, a Govett Quilliam associate, sat on the first panel session of the Women in Law Summit 2018 in Auckland to discuss how to stop women from leaving the law. The internationally recognised expert in space law says that she hopes members in the audience took the issues discussed during the event back to their respective organisations with a clear message that change is required in the profession.

“The key to change is communicating these issues and making sure they are understood by all members of the profession. Behaviour that amounts to anything less than professional in the workplace should not be tolerated,” she says. “It’s not so much about having the issues front and centre all the time, it is about ensuring that they are not overlooked. They need to part of the conversation whenever applicable and recognised.”

Pozza says that after legal professionals understand that there is a problem, they need to be willing to act positively towards changing the profession together.

Ready for change

It’s not that lawyers in New Zealand and Australia are ill-equipped for change. Referring to a recent NZ Lawyer report, Pozza says that the can-do attitude of those in the two countries’ legal profession must be tapped to promote change in the profession.

The report, which was based on a study of more than 1,000 lawyers across the world, said that lawyers in Australia and New Zealand are the most open to doing things differently in legal resourcing and are the most positive about engaging with new legal technology among their global peers.

“If we are comfortable incorporating technology into our legal practices and thereby changing the way we do law, then we should be able to embrace a change of culture and begin implementing it in the way we do law as part of our practices as well,” she says.

Dr Maria Pozza

More Lawyers need to speak up

Pozza says that as a panellist, it was good to hear the differing perspectives from members of the profession at different stages of their careers. Discussions at the event showed that the challenges faced by women in the profession are unique and require bespoke solutions.

“This is not to discount the challenges that men in our profession face. However, the structure of our profession is not geared up in a manner to both recognise and provide solutions to the challenges that women face in their legal careers, as discussed in the Pemberton report findings. The summit’s aim to identify those challenges by engaging in frank dialogue about them provides a solid starting point,” she says.

However, the profession would benefit from having more of its people participate and speak up during gatherings like the Women in Law Summit.

“Entry- and mid-level legal professionals could give really valuable insight as to how the issues affecting women in law look like at these levels,” Pozza says. “We heard from many high profile and leading women during the summit, and they imparted words of wisdom as to how they have overcome challenges throughout their own legal careers. However, we need to also hear more from the women at mid-tier. How are they coping, what are they facing, and what support do they need?”

She also hopes to see more participation and engagement from Māori and Pacific Islander lawyers at future events.

“Having a diverse cultural background makes New Zealand lawyers unique. Our profession includes a range of different cultural heritage. Alongside these discussions on culture change is the important recognition that we need to speak with one voice. We need to speak together as New Zealand lawyers that want to see change now,” she says.

Lessons from the regions

The larger firms can pick up a thing or two from the smaller and medium-sized laws from the region, Pozza says.

“The consciousness of the legal industry is often dominated by the larger and top-tier firms because of their size. I am forever reading about larger or top-tier law firms in various media publications as well as what they may or may not be doing, etc., but turnover in larger and top-tier law firms is apparently higher, and then you can compare this with a regional firm that has to work so much harder to retain staff,” she says.

For example, Govett Quilliam, which has a Wellington and New Plymouth office, has policies in place that work towards promoting a physically and mentally healthy work environment pursuant to the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

“Our CEO takes this obligation seriously and has implemented a strong culture and a set of policies that champion innovation, health and wellbeing, as well as flexible work arrangements for both men and women,” Pozza says. “Whilst big-city salaries may be enticing, the allure of flexible practices, greater life balance, salaries that do actually match the city and a drive to work as a strong team is a fundamental attitude that drives my firm’s culture. We are approximately 60 in number, and whilst keeping people happy, healthy and busy, is not an easy feat, it has been achievable. How? Only strong leadership, clearly identified goals and commitment to good cultural values that are supported by everyone in the firm can achieve culture change like that.”

This is why she thinks more participants and speakers from mid-sized and regional firms at events like the Women in Law Summit will offer value to the profession.

“Regionals, smaller and medium-sized firms have to come up with unique solutions to attract and retain great talent. My firm does this by ensuring that not only do they actually have the same quality of work as the larger or top-tier firms, but that they also have good cultural practices that recognise flexibility as an opportunity and promotes healthy mindsets and lifestyles. That leads to better teamwork delivery, outstanding client results, and provides an enjoyable place to come to work every day,” she says.

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