How law firms can change their culture

Two years ago, harassment and bullying in the legal profession in Aotearoa made national news.

Legal Culture

Important work has been completed since then, taking stock of the issues and attempting to find solutions. A new report, Purea Nei: Changing the Culture of the Legal Profession, released just before Christmas continues the conversation about culture change in the legal profession by asking the next question: how?

We, the report’s authors, believe those best positioned to answer these questions are people within the legal community themselves. We spoke to members of the legal profession and anyone associated with it – non-legal staff, legal executives, law students, legal academics and former members of the profession – with a particular focus on solutions for change.

More than 700 people engaged in the project, which was funded by the Law Foundation, the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation and the New Zealand Women’s Law Journal – Te Aho Kawe Kaupapa Ture a ngā Wāhine.

The report outlines ideas for change across a range of issues. Several key themes emerged, as follows.

Workplace structure

There is a lot we can do in the workplace to make a difference.

We encouraged participants to think about all aspects of the workplace and how to improve safety, wellbeing and overall happiness at work. Participants repeatedly identified the following:

  • Examining and changing the workplace structure is important. Alternatives or changes to the partnership model, which was widely regarded as concentrating too much power in just a few and failing to provide sufficient checks and balances, were favoured. This might involve changing legislation but could also involve reducing levels of hierarchy, exploring contractor models, or empowering staff by enabling them to actively participate in governance and management.
  • Culture needs to be crafted. Leaders, working together with staff, should regularly take stock of workplace culture, examine what is working well and what needs changing, and put pen to paper on what the firm culture will be. Culture needs to be based on values that foster safety and wellbeing at work. These values should be supported by all people in the workplace.
  • The mechanics of work need to be examined and upgraded to better support a healthy and productive workplace. The most favoured solutions were flexibility about the 9-5 model, appropriate pay to reflect the hours required – eg, through higher starting salaries or overtime pay – and using technology for efficiency. At the core was the desire for autonomy, respect, recognition of value-add, and trust.
  • Where human resources services are used, they should be supported and equipped to make good hiring, retention and progression decisions. Training on how to deal appropriately with misconduct needs to be sufficient and needs to enable HR teams to protect and support those who have suffered as a result of workplace misconduct. Services such as counselling should also be provided and their use encouraged.
  • Finally, achieving meaningful diversity and inclusion were seen as important goals. The most favoured solutions include specifically recruiting diverse staff, recognising and implementing tikanga and te Reo Māori in the workplace, and self-measurement and diversity targets. Diversity and inclusion mindsets and approaches must also be embedded in law schools.

But we need real leadership to achieve meaningful change.

Respondents believed good leaders are good lawyers, approachable, caring, good at communicating, supportive and provide appropriate feedback.

Good leaders ‘lead from the top’ by modelling the culture they hope to create, by investing in their own training and people management skills, and by holding themselves and others accountable.

Participants believed promotion into leadership roles must be based on management skills, as well as technical ability, and prospective managers need to display superior people skills (communication, approachability, supportiveness).

Finally, respondents favoured extensive and rigorous due diligence on future managers, and a clean record as far as bullying, harassment or other misconduct are concerned.

More training

We need proper education and external help.

When asked about how training and education could be used to resolve culture issues, participants overwhelmingly favoured frequent and appropriate training at all levels of a person’s career – at university, at work and at professional development courses.

Training should be self-referential and allow people to explore and unpack their biases. It should also equip people with the right skills for dealing with difficult situations and conversations (eg, calling out bad behaviour, supporting people in the workplace and holding perpetrators to account).

When it comes to accountability, external and independent HR is a worthwhile option, particularly for smaller law firms and/or barristers’ chambers.

There was also strong support for a union, which was established in the intervening months since this project began. Respondents explored the important role that clients play, firstly, in terms of lawyers appropriately managing demands (eg, through urgency premiums, and through dealing courageously with abusive or oppressive clients), and secondly in terms of the purchasing power clients can direct in support of firms with safe and positive workplace practices.

There was strong support for the NZ Law Society having a more significant role by auditing workplaces across various safety, wellbeing and diversity factors, and by having strengthened complaints and disciplinary systems in place with a specialist unit for responding to bullying and harassment.

We hope this report will be a useful resource for organisations and individuals when they are deciding how to tackle the difficult and entrenched issues that have been identified in our profession.

We recognise each workplace is unique, and not all of the ideas outlined will be suitable for every place of work. Further, this report does not purport to offer all of the answers or to be a final handbook for dealing with issues in the profession. Ultimately, this report seeks to contribute to, and encourage, the ongoing discussion the legal profession must have in 2020 and beyond.

Allanah Colley is Assistant Crown Counsel in the Crown Law Office and a trustee of the NZ Women’s Law Journal; Ana Lenard and Bridget McLay are junior barristers at Shortland Chambers

To read the full report, please visit www.lawfoundation.org.nz.

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