The New Zealand Law Society is establishing a working group to consider what improvements can be made to enable better reporting of harassment in the legal profession to the Law Society.
“There is no place for a culture of sexual harassment in our profession. It must stop. The Law Society is determined to do all it can to tackle a complex issue in an innovative and practical manner,” Law Society President Kathryn Beck says.
“As regulator of the practice of law the Law Society fully appreciates that it must always assess whether the regulatory framework in place is flexible enough to meet current needs.”
“It is essential that all lawyers are able to practise in a workplace environment in which they are free from any harassment. The working group will look at whether the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 and its associated rules and regulations allow us to take effective action.”
Ms Beck says the members of the working group, their terms of reference and the timeframe will be announced shortly.
“This is one of a number of actions the Law Society is taking to address a matter which impacts on all lawyers and their clients. The public discussion has been sobering but it has also highlighted matters that we need to resolve so we can be more proactive without re-victimising victims.
“Alongside our processes, we have looked at the practical actions which are needed to openly and fully address the issue of sexual harassment in the legal profession. This includes providing support for people who are affected by it.
“Over 2017 the Law Society’s Women’s Advisory Panel looked at harassment as well as other matters blocking the advancement of women in the profession. It decided that the issue of harassment required its own project and focus, to be further progressed after launch of the Gender Equality Charter in April. This work has been brought forward. Clearly action is needed now.
“What are we aiming for? We must focus on the culture and underlying assumptions which exist in some law firms and legal workplaces. As with the Gender Equality Charter, the change has to come from inside, driven and assisted from outside.”
Ms Beck says the Law Society’s plan of action includes:
Development of an online portal and dedicated helpline which enables reporting of concerns related to workplace harassment. The objective is to make it easier for people to raise and discuss sensitive matters arising in their workplace.
A free webinar on harassment which will be available to all lawyers. This will be a similar format to the very successful unconscious bias webinar delivered last year.
Completion of a review of the National Friends Panel and identifying or recruiting members who are particularly well placed to provide support and advice on sensitive matters.
The Law Society will organise and facilitate meetings of key interest groups such as those for women lawyers and young lawyers to look at the issues, what needs to be done and to develop appropriate resources.
A national survey of all lawyers which looks at the current workplace environment for legal practice is being scoped. As well as seeking information on harassment, this will also include questions on stress and wellbeing.
Development of more local branch and national events which address how to deal with difficult people, bullying and harassment.
Provision of more information and practical guidance through Law Society publications, beginning with the April issue of LawTalk.
Inclusion of information which addresses harassment and bullying in Law Society publications for young lawyers.
Development and maintenance of centralised information resources and support available from organisations both within and outside the legal profession. This will draw upon the Practising Well initiative.