The country’s whole legal profession needs an urgent culture change, the New Zealand Law Society and the New Zealand Bar Association (NZBA) are urging.
The calls to action follow the release of Dame Margaret Bazley’s report after her review of law firm Russell McVeagh. The 89-page report revealed major failings and flaws of the top-tier New Zealand firm.
“I want to be clear that while this report is about appalling events and a dysfunctional culture, we should not for a minute believe this is isolated to one firm,” said Law Society President Kathryn Beck.
“There is nothing to suggest that the issues that have been documented in this report have not occurred elsewhere – the structures, cultures and work practices are common across the profession. These structures and cultures have historically served to keep issues like these out of the public eye and from being properly dealt with,” she said.
The Law Society president said that the recent workplace environment survey of the lawyer body showed the prevalence of harassment and bullying in the profession, finding that one in three female lawyers have been sexually harassed in legal workplaces. The profession has failed to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive workplace, she said.
“Every lawyer in New Zealand must now commit to turning this around and building a just culture that we can all be proud of and which the public of New Zealand expect,” she said.
She also reiterated the Law Society’s commitment to being more accessible to members of the profession and to driving a cultural change program across the profession. She revealed that the society has received a number of harassment and bullying complaints in recent months.
“Following the outpouring of complaints and allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace over the last six months we have acknowledged that there must be a concerted programme to change the culture of our profession,” she said. “This report is another important milestone in shining light into the dark corners of our profession and will help us to build the culture our profession needs.”
The Law Society is looking for lawyers to join a workplace culture-change taskforce.
Changing the bar
The NZBA is also looking to lead in meaningfully changing the bar.
“The immediate challenge for the Bar Association will be to translate the Bazley recommendations, which can relate immediately and directly to a large law firms, into smaller office/chambers environments where most of the country’s barristers work,” said Clive Elliott QC, president of the NZBA.
“It is important that the thoroughness and intent of the Bazley recommendations can in some way be applied across the whole of New Zealand’s legal profession, including the independent Bar,” he said.
He said that this is a profession wide problem, as demonstrated in Australia. Regulatory bodies in New South Wales and Victoria recently launched probes into sexual harassment in the legal profession in the states.
The NZBA will continue to push for the implementation of codes of conduct in all legal profession workplaces in New Zealand, the organisation said.
“The NZBA wishes to acknowledge everyone who has come forward to make complaints about workplace behaviour and to anyone who may do so in the future. It also believes the reporting of this type of behaviour is the responsibility of all of those who witness it, not just the victims,” it said.
Top firm faces the music
Full statement on Dame Margaret Bazley’s review