Sacha Judd was – and is – a successful lawyer who had made it in the male dominated New Zealand legal profession, like those in the US, UK and Australia too, but she knows too that it is “profitable jerks” that are one factor making things difficult for women lawyers to enjoy a successful, satisfying legal career. But there is another way, she says.
After working as a commercial partner at Buddle Findlay and as a “crazy rich expat” in Singapore and Hong Kong she is now working in the tech sector, which she notes has sexism issues of its own. She advises start-ups and others, she also places much of her time educating companies on diversity and inclusion issues.
Speaking at an alumni dinner for the Auckland University Law Review, she spoke powerfully about the problems with the legal profession which, in New Zealand has once again been rocked by Russell McVeagh’s further misconduct incident following its year from hell, and explaining that there is a way forward for women lawyers who may well be giving up on the law.
Women lawyers, she says, have more power than they think.
“Know that you now have more power than you think you do. You can have a bright career outside the structures of a large firm, if you want to. The compromises we made are not the only way.
“You’re bright and talented and qualified: a career with a large firm is not the only way to demonstrate your success.
And if you want to stay inside those firms, keep pushing for change. You outnumber them, both literally and in the court of public opinion. Their time is up, not just in the legal profession, but across the board. It’s taken far too long, but you’ll win.”
The legal profession is not the only one that suffers from sexism, harassment and bullying issues. But there are differences that exist.
“In the tech industry, where I work now, we talk about the problem of ‘brilliant jerks’ – people who are tolerated for too long because they’re very good at what they do. In the legal profession, the problem is ‘profitable jerks’ – people who become bulletproof because of the amount of money they bring in to the business.
“It has taken far too long to deal with some of these individuals in the profession, even when the writing has been clearly on the wall for some time, because it wasn’t in anyone’s financial interest to do so.”
The New Zealand Law Society’s ‘taskforce’ that is set up to deal with workplace harassment and bullying issues is not a move that fills her with confidence that the issue will be dealt with effectively.
While ‘sincere, meaningful action’ needs to be taken, she remains skeptical given the “horrifying levels of harassment, bullying an dmisconduct” in the profession.
“. . the Law Society’s response was to establish a taskforce, and to call for unpaid volunteers. You tell me exactly how much value you attribute to work you’re asking me to do, when you tell me how much you are prepared to pay me for that work.”
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Unwelcoming to Women
She also commented on the unwelcome attitude to law, despite the fact that more women than men were graduating from law school when she did.
“. . these stuffy, mahogany-clad offices were definitively male. My sole protest was to use that as my interview question. Whenever they said “now, do you have anything to ask us?, I’d sit there nervously and ask why there were so few women partners at the firm. (This question worked at any firm because it was true of every firm).
“The answers were always rehearsed – they were ready for the question. Only one ever stuck with me: the partner who answered said that he didn’t think his firm’s culture suited “some people”. I didn’t go to work there.”
The partnership structure of law firms is part of the problem, she says.
“It may be the worst way to run a business, where the owners are the managers and there is no external governance.”
The way forward for women may require a major male shift in attitude and behavior, but the faster-track for many smart and talented female lawyers may also be to look beyond the mahogany paneled law offices where legal jobs continue to abound.
Source: The Spinoff