Has anything changed across 37 years?

“I began practising law in 1981 as a third generation lawyer, starting at the same time as a close friend who must remain nameless. Neither of us expected to confront inequality in the profession although admittedly we were, as women, very much in the minority.

In our first year, the front page of the Christmas edition of LawNews depicted a cartoon of Santa with a voluptuous blonde young woman lawyer on his lap. ‘Ho bloody ho,’ we thought – and immediately rushed off our letter of complaint to the Editor.

We had started our first jobs at the same time in different firms, one of which was to last only for six months. Many reasons were given by the supervising partner for the peremptory dismissal – including that “we” did not like “your manner and dress about the office”. It’s a long story – but an experience which raised questions as to the motivation for the real reason for the dismissal.

We headed to London and were both employed by Freshfields. The big firm experience was interesting but the culture was not for us. We returned to Auckland to pursue rewarding legal careers at the Bar in smaller firms. During those careers, we have worked on various committees/organisations to change cultures, create equal opportunities, and to confront gender discrimination. 37 years later, nothing seems to have changed – instead, it appears to have got worse.

The revelations of sexual harassment at Russell McVeagh, and the experiences of others now being disclosed, make it clear that sexual harassment and bullying behaviours are a pervasive part of the legal culture in many firms. This despite us all being part of a profession, the values of which include collegiality, fairness, honesty, respect, and even support.

There is no argument that there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift within Russell McVeagh and other large firms in particular, but also across the profession as a whole, including the courtrooms.

Cultural change comes from behavioural change – difficult – particularly when the behaviours that need to change are so ‘richly’ rewarded with money, status and, yes, girls on order.

To change the culture that pervades the legal profession, there needs to be a range of measures. These are our suggestions.

1. Acknowledge the problem publicly and apologise

One of the most disheartening aspects of the recent revelations is that there are clearly some senior members of these firms who have been aware of these behaviours and have chosen to do nothing. Such complicity is unacceptable, these ‘knowing bystanders’ are almost as culpable as the perpetrators.

As for the perpetrators, they must be held accountable within their firms, the Law Society rules and regulations, the profession and the law itself.

Moving the perpetrator out of the firm to the Bar is not an adequate response – if they continue to be briefed then where is the incentive to change behaviours?

2. Commitment to change

This will require relentless, principled leadership – within all law firms, from Bench and Bar, from law societies – across the profession as a whole to the extent that we will start and continue to hold each other to account for behaviours that fall below an acceptable standard.

3. A plan

The Law Society has announced it will form a working group that focuses on sexual harassment. This should include an assessment of the extent of the problem. The Law Society is encouraging young women who have experienced sexual harassment to come forward with a complaint. What young woman is going to expose herself by making such a complaint when she risks being labelled as “that girl who spoke out” – a label that is likely to follow her through her career? Anonymous complaints must be accepted to determine the extent of the problem.

Changing behaviours requires both internal and external motivation. To date, there can be little confidence that internal motivation is going to get us there on its own. Three key external motivators might be: professional regulation, professional demand, and client demand.

Professional regulation – We suggest a Code of Conduct be devised that makes these behaviours unacceptable and acts as a brake on the culture that permits these behaviours to be acceptable, normalised, “just what happens”. There would need to be an external audit process to ensure compliance. Our plan is too detailed to include here.

Professional demand – Law schools have a crucial role to play. These behaviours exist in a culture of arrogance, entitlement and an unchallenged view of self-importance. That law students should clamour to work within such a culture perhaps says much about our profession (and also about the law schools) in light of recent revelations. This must change – if students are aware from an independent audit that the firm they are considering has a poor record of harassment and bullying, then maybe they will think again – or at least go in with their eyes wide open.

Client demand – There is a powerful role for clients, one that is already evident in other domains. Around the world, nations, public and private entities, and individuals are disinvesting in industries that profit from fossil fuels and armament manufacture – clients are already bringing an ethical and moral dimension to their business lives. This has been formalised in many areas in the development and application of internal reporting against a triple bottom line of financial, social (respect, culture), and environmental indicators. Those accessing the services of the legal profession will choose their professionals by those reports against that triple bottom line.

Reflecting on our experiences, and listening to the experiences of female colleagues these past few days, has forced us to conclude that little has changed since our letter written to you 37 years ago. Despite the work of many women in big and small roles, in practice and on committees, despite the appointment of women to key roles and in reasonable numbers, the situation for women in the legal profession has not improved.

It’s time for action.

Jo Rice

Contact Us
Phone 09 303 5270
Fax 09 309 3726
Email reception@adls.org.nz