"There is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession"

by Sol Dolor01 Jun 2018

New Zealand’s legal profession has a cultural crisis, according to New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck.

Beck was reacting to the results of the Law Society’s workplace environment survey, which revealed that many lawyers have been sexually harassed.

“As lawyers, we are careful with words and we let facts speak for themselves,” she said. “When nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life, when more than half of lawyers have been bullied at some time in their working life, when nearly 30% of lawyers feel major changes are needed to the culture of their workplace, and when 40% of lawyers under 30 believe major changes are needed to their workplace culture, we must call a spade a spade – there is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession.”

According to the survey conducted for the Law Society by research firm Colmar Brunton, 31% of women lawyers and 5% of men lawyers have been sexually harassed in legal workplaces.

Though most of the targets of sexual harassment were an employee lawyer in a law firm, harassment was also reported by in-house lawyers, law clerks or interns, partners, barristers sole, and others. The harasser is most likely to be the target’s manager, supervisor, partner, or director. Women were found to be more likely than men to be harassed by someone in a more senior position.

While the harasser is nearly always a man when a woman is the target, the converse is not true, Colmar Brunton said. The survey made use of the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) and the behavioural definition of sexual harassment.

The HRC said that sexual harassment is any unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated, or is serious enough to have a harmful effect, or which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment. Sexual harassment can involve spoken or written material, images, digital material or a physical act.

Under the behavioural definition, there are 15 behaviours classified as sexual harassment under the categories of unwanted sexual attention, crude or offensive behaviour, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.

For sexual harassment on the basis of the HRC definition, the harasser is most likely to be a woman (74%) when the target is a man. Under the behavioural definition the harasser is more likely to be a man when the target is a man (58%).

Only 27% of sexually harassed lawyers under the HRC definition sought support or advice. Under the behavioural definition, only 17% did the same. The trend is echoed in those who formally reported or made a complaint, with only 12% reporting under the HRC definition and only 7% reporting among those who were harassed following the behavioural definition.

The survey also found that 28% of lawyers have witnessed harassment in the legal workplace.

"This is about the legal profession. New Zealanders expect our profession to operate to the highest standards of integrity with a commitment to fairness, equity and justice. This survey makes it crystal clear that we are not meeting that expectation. We are failing to keep our own people safe, and we cannot stand for this,” Beck said.

“The results of this survey are deeply saddening, and I know lawyers across New Zealand will be very disappointed at what this report makes so clear. However, it is from this clarity that real change will come,” she said. “The process of cultural change has started. Every practising lawyer has a responsibility for driving this change through their own behaviour and what they are prepared to tolerate from others.”

The Law Society president has also acknowledged the shortcomings of the organisation and affirmed its commitment to solving the issue.

“I'm disappointed that this research is a surprise to us. I'm disappointed we heard about so much through the media. I'm disappointed that, for whatever reason, people chose not to report their experiences to us. I'm disappointed that for so many people, the law has not been a safe profession,” Beck said.

“Today marks a significant step in change. We are making this full report available to every New Zealander and I'm writing to every lawyer today seeking their active commitment and leadership in building a culture that is safe, inclusive, fair and just,” she said. “This is the New Zealand Law Society's commitment, and I request all lawyers and stakeholders to work with us on this goal and hold us to account on it.”

The survey was prompted by numerous revelations of inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces in the country, as the #MeToo movement spread through various industries around the world.

These issues and more will be discussed at the upcoming Women in Law Summit in Auckland. Speaking at the summit are world-renowned fashion designer Karen Walker and leaders of major NZ law firms including Bell Gully, Kensington Swan, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, Russell McVeagh, and Simpson Grierson.

 

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