Lawyers’ union seeks to address ‘power imbalance’

It’s been a highly challenging couple of years for the legal profession in New Zealand.


Hayley Coles

Dame Margaret Bazely’s damning report last year into allegations of sexual misconduct involving interns at Russell McVeagh forced the profession to take a long, hard look at itself.

Claims of sexual harassment, bullying and exploitation of junior staff at major law firms were legion but Bazely brought it all out into the open, triggering something of a cultural revolution.

It is perhaps no accident that women are now to be found at the helm of many of New Zealand’s largest and most prestigious firms.

And it’s women who are now at the forefront of a new organisation designed to look after the interests of the hundreds of young lawyers at the bottom of the legal hierarchy.

Hayley Coles, co-President of the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU), says the organisation’s core objective is addressing the power imbalance in the profession.

In a wide-ranging interview with LawNews, the 26-year-old explained what motivates her and others to provide a voice for lawyers of her generation.

What drew you into law and what were the upsides and downsides of working in the profession?
“I grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal, where my parents worked with an aid organisation. Corruption was rife and justice seemed tied to luck or money. New Zealand’s justice system, while still not perfect, seemed far better.

“The rule of law meant something and I wanted to learn about a working justice system. Perhaps naively or idealistically, I wanted to advocate for others and help right injustices.

“However, the legal profession and the justice system are far from perfect. The amount of money a client has is still a big factor and the system is emotionally draining for them.

“Internally, the profession reflects some of the aggression and competition used to advocate for clients, and many people are not valued for their time and contribution.” 

What eventually led you to form New Zealand’s first union for legal workers and what was the reaction from those in the profession?
“Several of us in the team had independently thought of, and started discussing, the idea with friends.

“The founding members are junior lawyers and we saw it as a solution to many of the issues we faced and we saw other groups in the profession, such as administrative staff, facing.

“A union was a way of giving these groups a voice and a way to make change that none of us could achieve alone.

“The reaction overall has been overwhelmingly positive. When we launched we received messages of support from many different people and had more than 300 members in less than a week.

“Many senior members of the profession have offered us their time and money and we are very grateful for that.

“Some junior lawyers have been more hesitant, waiting to see what we do and unsure what it means for them.

“However, now that some of the large firms have started making concrete changes as a consequence of our advocacy work - for example, paying their staff top-ups when they would otherwise be working for less than the minimum wage - we are seeing more and more junior lawyers get on board.”

What are your key objectives and what is your strategy to achieve them?
“In the long term, ALWU wants to transform legal workplaces and make them places where legal workers can thrive. We aim to do this through advocacy and action. 

“What this looks like on a day-to-day basis varies. It may take the form of campaigns, providing advocacy or other support to our members, education about legal rights and working with stakeholders in the profession to drive system-level changes.

“Our first campaign has focused on ensuring all legal workers are paid at least the minimum wage for the hours that they work but there are a number of follow-up campaigns in the pipeline.”

What is the current state of your membership in terms of numbers and diversity and has it been difficult to recruit members who may fear reprisals from employers?
“We have over 600 members and our numbers are growing every week.

“We have members all around the country, not only in the large cities, and have a mix of age, gender, ethnicity and role.

“As our initial focus has been on minimum entitlements, an issue that disproportionately affects junior lawyers, the majority of our members are junior lawyers.”

What sort of services will you offer members and do you intend to collectively bargain with employers?
“Currently we offer support and advocacy services individually and on a larger scale.

“The campaigns we run are for our members, although they will often affect non-members as well. We are lucky to have had offers of pro bono representation from senior members of the profession to assist us to support our members if legal action is required.

“Yes, we intend to collectively bargain with employers as we see that as being one of the most effective ways we can help our members.

“However, collective bargaining is a medium-term goal for us: our first priority is building up a large, engaged membership base that is willing to take that step to drive change in their workplaces.”

To what extent are junior workers still working unacceptably long hours?
“We are heartened to hear that some firms are moving away from a culture of employees working long hours without pay. However, long hours and poor pay are still a reality in many workplaces. 

“ALWU understands the need for long hours when there are tight deadlines but that should be an occasional thing, not a consistent one. When long hours are required, staff should also be adequately compensated for that additional time.

“At the moment our focus is on ensuring staff are paid at least the minimum wage for the hours they work but establishing systems to monitor the hours staff are working and to pay them at least the minimum wage for those hours is a great first step in a broader move to paying them fairly for their time.” 

To what extent is sexual harassment and bullying still an issue in the profession and how do you plan to counter it?
“There has been some improvement on this issue, however there is still a long way to go.

“Sexual harassment and bullying are still common and complaints systems are still difficult to use with no guarantee there will be any consequences for the perpetrator.

“We expect this to be something we will work on with different stakeholders in different ways, including the law society. We have started work on a campaign in this area and will be launching it soon.”

What are the parameters of the workplace survey you are doing and is it your intention to rate law firms in terms of pay, working conditions etc?
“We are finalising our report on our employment information survey, which collected data on salaries, bonuses, other benefits, work hours and minimum wage breaches among other things.

“The survey itself does not rate law firms but provides a summary of the data we collected. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions as to how the various law firms have fared.” 

Do you accept that many law firms may take exception to being rated by you and challenge your findings?
“The report is important in providing transparency where there previously has not been any.

“We will provide a copy of the report to law firms before we publish it for them to check the accuracy of any information we have received from their staff. They are welcome to challenge our findings by providing their own data.” 

The medical profession has long been unionised. Why has it taken so long for lawyers to follow suit?
“We can only speculate. There could be a number of reasons: anything from no one getting around to it before to not seeing the need or not thinking it would succeed before culture change became a hot topic in the profession.” 

The Resident Doctors Association has a reputation for being militant and is not afraid of strike action. Do you see yourselves in the same mold and would you resort to calling for strikes if need be?
“ALWU seeks to be a co-operative and collaborative union. We think more can be achieved in the legal profession by working collaboratively with employers so far as that is possible.

“However, we expect to be taken seriously and we will take a stand when we need to, either for an individual who has been mistreated or collectively.

“In terms of strike action, we would be able to strike only during collective bargaining and only if our members wanted to. 

“If members wanted to and we thought it would assist in negotiating a collective agreement, we would certainly consider a strike.”

In 2014 a Legal Workers Union was registered with the Companies Office but failed to get off the ground. What makes you think you will not suffer the same fate?
“We have been in touch with the group who sought to start a union in 2014. 

“Part of the issue they faced was that members of the group who were trying to start the union ended up moving to the UK or leaving the profession and they did not have the momentum to continue. 

“They never reached the point of launching. ALWU, on the other hand, has launched successfully and has over 600 members.

“Our momentum is building and we have increasing legitimacy as firms listen to us and change their policies as a result. I have no doubt ALWU will continue to grow and become a well-respected player in the profession.”

Are you heartened to see more women now running some of New Zealand’s largest law firms?
“While it is great to see more women involved in the leadership of large law firms, I wouldn’t say they are run by women. Most firms still have a majority of white men in their partnership and on the board.

“Some have a female chair/CEO which is good but doesn’t excuse the rest of the board lacking diversity.

“Some firms have not made enough of an effort and we would like to see more gender and racial diversity in partnerships and boards as time goes on.”

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