Improving workplace culture and supporting practitioners

As an organisation committed to serving and standing alongside both our members and the wider legal profession, it has always been important to ADLS that we support and help practitioners in all aspects of their professional lives and practice.

In conjunction with existing initiatives and relationships, ADLS President Joanna Pidgeon says that ADLS is looking at what the organisation can do to help to eliminate harassment and other inappropriate behaviour in the workplace going forward. In addition, we will continue to support members who have experienced such issues, and to assist the profession generally in how it addresses them.

“Lawyers have a special position and responsibility to uphold the law, and statutory obligations to ensure safe workplaces. But as a profession, we have a lot of work ahead to make sure we’re doing just that,” she says.

“The way in which the profession is structured can make it very hard for people to complain about things without facing a negative impact on their careers. We are concerned for those who are the victims of any type of harassment or bullying, and are supportive of their bravery in coming forward,” she continues.

“It’s wider than just sexual harassment – any form of harassment, bullying or discrimination at work is unacceptable. ADLS wants to make a constructive contribution to improving workplace culture and to the way in which the profession addresses these issues.”

ADLS has a long-standing focus on working alongside younger practitioners, women lawyers, and other groups within the profession in need of support.

The Newly Suited Committee (comprising recent graduates through to lawyers with several years’ PQE from around the country) has been doing great work in the area of supporting younger lawyers who may be struggling to get to grips with the challenges of their new workplace. The Committee has filled a gap in a much-needed way – in providing networking opportunities, assisting with the mentoring of younger lawyers, and contributing a regular advice column in LawNews. Questions can be submitted confidentially to the Committee – to date, this has resulted in practical tips on topics from managing difficult relationships to dealing with patronising “pet names”.

“Young lawyers can face a number of challenges on entering the profession, and in seeking to support that transition, harassment has been a regular topic of concern for our Newly Suited Committee,” says ADLS Council Member Stephanie Nicolson. “We believe that newly admitted lawyers should be entitled to expect the very highest standards of behaviour from the profession they are entering, and that harassment can be as much the concern of bystanders as it is for those directly affected.”

The Committee will be looking at how newly suited lawyers facing any such issues could best be assisted by their peers, senior practitioners, and other organisations, including ADLS.

ADLS is focused on supporting students to make the transition to practice, and providing opportunities for both students and new lawyers to engage with senior members of the profession. Law students are encouraged to join ADLS as student members (students memberships are offered at no charge). Along with initiatives such as our regular “Meet the Judiciary” and “Meet the QCs” gatherings, we have enjoyed the participation of students from the University of Auckland’s Equal Justice Project in the work of our specialist legal Committees and attending our events. Additionally, ADLS has active relationships with law student societies on a number of campuses throughout New Zealand. We have run work experience schemes and provided young lawyer/student mentoring or “buddy” programmes around the country for a number of years.

“One of the things that the buddy system is designed to offer is a friendly ear which is separate and independent from the student’s place of work or study, so that they can be candid when seeking support,” says Ms Nicolson.

ADLS has also been collaborating with Miriam Dean QC and Catapult Leadership Training on the “Leading Your Career” workshops for junior and senior women lawyers in centres around the country. Formatted to be practical and interactive, attendees are encouraged to think about the challenges women face in the current working environment and how to deal with them. Importantly, these are not “once attended and quickly forgotten” experiences – participants have chosen to stay in touch and support each other after the sessions.

ADLS has been a regular supporter of AWLA and its work over many years, including sponsoring its annual Dame Silvia Cartwright Lecture and hosting events like the annual AWLA President’s Function. We have also been pleased recently to support the New Zealand Women’s Law Journal – the only academic publication dedicated to issues for women lawyers in New Zealand. The Auckland launch of last year’s inaugural issue was held at ADLS’ Chancery Chambers premises, and a $1,500 prize for the best article sponsored by ADLS was awarded.

As well as continuing with these programmes, relationships and commitments, ADLS is looking ahead to what else we can do to help lawyers and firms better deal with issues in the workplace. A sample “anti-harassment in the workplace” policy is under consideration, something Ms Pidgeon thinks may be of particular use to smaller firms.

“While a lot of firms already have such policies in place, some medium-or smaller-sized firms may not, and we think it is a good idea to give such firms a starting point to engage on the issue, and which they can then further refine and develop,” she comments.

Ms Pidgeon also recommends that a certain portion of lawyers’ ten hours of mandatory CPD training should be on topics that would help them to develop a healthy work culture within firms, rather than just focussing on hard legal skills.

“As lawyers, we spend a lot of time and effort concentrating on hard legal skills, but it might be that no one has shown someone how to be a good boss or supervisor,” Ms Pidgeon notes. “Often, people end up repeating negative behaviours which were modelled to them – saying things like, ‘I had it tough, you need to learn how to deal with it.’ But that is certainly not an acceptable approach.”

“Changing the CPD requirements to include a broader range of both core and ‘soft’ skills will help ensure that those who need to challenge themselves to learn better ways of doing things, must do so.”

“Not all law firms have these issues, and there are some fantastic work environments out there,” Ms Pidgeon says. “Many firms have done a lot of work to make sure that they have supportive work environments which are diverse – where their staff are encouraged to develop, not just as lawyers, but as contributing members of society. That said, we need to ensure that we are not just paying lip service to anti-harassment policies, but that, as a profession, we are actually doing what we say we will.”

“All lawyers have a duty of responsibility if they see behaviour or conduct that is unacceptable to do something about it, whether it’s calling someone out on a sexist joke or if they see more serious behaviour, otherwise we all become complicit in what is happening,” she stresses. “Calling someone out raises awareness, and encourages others to speak up and support you.”

“This is an opportunity for us to seize the momentum of the issue and drive systemic change in the profession.” 

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