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Women Lawyer’s Castigate Law Society Response Over Sex Harassment Survey

Women Lawyer's Castigate Law Society Response Over Sex Harassment Survey 2
Women Lawyer's Castigate Law Society Response Over Sex Harassment Survey 3
Steph Dyhrberg

The Law Society has been castigated by womens’ law groups and vocal spokeswomen in their response to the sexual harassment survey.

The response from womens’ law groups was harsh – with  a release from Wellington Womens’ Law Association signed by Steph Dryberg castigating the NZLS for effectively ignoring other reports citing the sexual harassment issue as being pervasive.

In a post on Facebook the WWLA report read – NZLS President Kathryn Beck has written to every lawyer in New Zealand expressing disappointment, disgust and regret about the sexual harassment and bullying survey results. Ms Beck is distressed that the results are so bad and stated that she is committed to tackling these issues “head on and directly”. WWLA agrees that the results are indeed bad and acknowledges Ms Beck’s apology and commitment to drive change.

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Ms Beck also stated that the Law Society had been “surprised and caught out by these results”.

WWLA finds that disingenuous. We are completely unsurprised by the horrific results of the NZLS survey. This is our members’ lived experience, and we all knew it. The survey results have confirmed what women lawyers and researchers have been telling our profession for years: the law is a hostile environment for many of the people who work in the sector. It has been astonishingly difficult to get our profession, led by the Law Society, to take the cultural problems in our profession seriously and to take positive steps to address them. The response has often been that NZLS has to gently persuade, and not upset, the profession. Well, we are pretty upset.

WWLA and our colleagues have been talking about the considerable obstacles women face in the law, including harassment and discrimination, for all of our careers. Articles about the issues for women in the law including harassment have appeared in LawTalk many times in the past 5 years.

WWLA and the Women in Law Committee of the Wellington Branch have held innumerable seminars, workshops and panels, events and written articles. We have encountered polite indifference, veiled threats and outright hostility, even when lawyers have had the incredible courage to disclose experiencing rape at work.

Women Lawyer's Castigate Law Society Response Over Sex Harassment Survey 4In 2016, Josh Pemberton’s (pictured left) “First Steps” research paper showed us all how bad it was for many junior lawyers: www.lawsociety.org.nz/…/first-steps-the-experiences-and-ret…. WWLA and WIL ran an excellent panel event and worked on local initiatives with the Wellington Branch. More LawTalk articles appeared, but the profession and the Law Society had no real strategy to address the issues Pemberton’s research identified.

Ms Beck has been quoted as being disappointed about only learning recently through the media of sexual harassment of young women. The Law Society did not learn about the sexual assaults of young women at Russell McVeagh recently, through the media: the then Executive Director was informed by one of the women nearly 2 years ago. No investigation was initiated until the scandal became public. We owe the media a debt of gratitude for forcing the Law Society to act.

The Law Society has been well aware people hardly ever make formal disciplinary complaints to it about such conduct. Several groups tried in vain to have sexual harassment included in the just launched Gender Equality Charter. In February 2018, WWLA asked Ms Beck to introduce a sexual harassment policy for the profession and even sent her a draft: NZLS has merely made it available on its website for firms to use if they wanted.

Late last year, the NZLS Wellington Branch Council put a motion to the NZLS Board seeking to create a representative Women in Law Committee at the national level. There are national committees for many areas of legal practice. The motion was defeated. The Women’s Advisory Panel was said to be sufficient. In our view, a national Committee would have been able to work on exactly the issues the workplace culture “taskforce” will now tackle.

The Law Society expects Branches and lawyers to voluntarily educate our colleagues and come up with solutions, including by working for free on the projects now underway and the “taskforce”. Any lawyers who volunteer to help will almost certainly be the same passionately committed WOMEN lawyers who do most of the work in this space. Effecting significant culture change is a big job for people with real expertise.

It requires detailed scoping, planning and implementation. When Police and Defence have embarked on such projects, they have committed a lot of time, energy and money to them. Lawyers lack the skills and certainly do not have the time. NZLS should be commissioning proper change expertise to work with the Society and all practitioners.

The Law Society almost never funds educative initiatives, because the “representative” (non-regulatory) functions of the Law Society have to pay for themselves. With respect, ensuring the safety of our profession for all members of the Society is not a “representative” function. Initiatives to change the culture should be funded from NZLS’ considerable financial reserves. If that requires a change to the NZLS operating model or even the law, do it: we are confident Minister Little would be up for it.

WWLA will continue to run our sexual harassment survey until it closes on 30 June

2018: www.surveymonkey.com/r/wwlasurvey, which will give a voice to support staff, legal executives and lawyers without a current practising certificate, who fell outside the NZLS survey. We will give confidential feedback to identified employers to help them address their issues. We are liaising with other women lawyers’ associations around the country to set up an independent contact people network. We will continue to be a strong, independent voice for culture change and accountability.

However, it is people in positions of authority, starting with Ms Beck, who need to change the structures, policies and practices which have allowed these problems to persist. And, based on the clear evidence, senior practitioners are the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual harassment and bullying: they need to own the behaviour, and stop it.

Steph Dyhrberg

Other Responses

Vocal #Metoo voices were heard to exclaim that the Law Society should hardly be surprised that one-in-five lawyers in the profession had been sexually harassed in the past five years.

One of their most vocal, lawyer Olivia Wensley observed on LinkedIn –

Women Lawyer's Castigate Law Society Response Over Sex Harassment Survey 5

Law recruiters McLeod Duminy noted the lack of surprise at the survey’s findings –

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