Why Don’t We Know What Is Behind The NZ Law Society ‘Workplace Culture’ Issue?

departing lawyers

John Bowie* Fresh from its various PR pronouncements and public utterances over the need for good workplace behaviour, the Law Society itself has found itself in the uncomfortably hot epicentre of its own workplace issues with the June resignation of new CEO Joanna Simon, purportedly prompted by ‘behavioural concerns’ involving new President Jacque Lethbridge.

Why Don't We Know What Is Behind The NZ Law Society 'Workplace Culture' Issue? 1

The appointment of highly regarded Joanna Simon, formerly Chief Operating Office at DLA Piper NZ, who assumed her role in July last year and left within her first year, after she had “really impressed” the Society’s recruitment panel.

Her resignation and whatever other factors are involved in goings-on at the Law Society have lead to a widespread ‘culture review’ into the NZLS lead by Mike Heron QC.

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President Lethbridge issued a statement welcoming the review, saying her presidency was one of ‘fairness and transparency’, in the spirit of Arderneque politics.

She also strongly denied allegations about behavioral concerns involving herself, while supporting the culture review itself.

But she was clearly unhappy with the Law Society’s statement pointing the finger at their own president in what can only be seen as a highly unusual occurrence involving their own president.

No one doubts the competence of all the actors in this NZLS drama, but the over-arching theme is somehow being missed.

The Law Society have been silent as to precisely what has lead to the review, notwithstanding talk of transparency in all directions and the recently required need for mandatory reporting within 14 days of bullying, harassment, discrimination and similar in the legal workplace.

The issues of bullying and workplace culture within the profession have been front and centre for the Law Society time in recent years as broiling controversy about law firm workplace behaviour has continued with all sorts of recent, unwanted headline hogging with the recent decisions around James Gardner-Hopkins’ suspension.

It is therefore disappointing, to say the least, to have silence and opaqueness from the NZLS around the enquiry into the Society’s own workplace culture.

Front footing the issue might be more helpful from those allegedly given to transparency and scene-setting for the profession itself.

The Simon Resignation

Joanna Simon’s statement issued on 10 June was understandably brief:

Accompanying my resignation was a letter to the Chair of the People and Capability committee outlining my reasons for my resignation and my concerns.  The Board have been dealing with this matter since then and have decided to embark on a culture review of the Law Society.  I don’t intend to say anything further.

Whatever is going on and whatever the behavioral or culture concerns may be, the Law Society hardly needs to make itself the centre of such claims, in the broiling wake of the Russell McVeagh bad behavior problems and general professional workplace problems.

Herald columnist Sasha Borissenko outlined frustrations with the very lack of transparency that Jacque Lethbridge had promised with mark her presidency. To be fair, the issue is now one that the Law Society faces as vice-president, David Campbell, made the generic ‘we can’t comment’ statement, noting that New Zealanders must have “trust and confidence in the Law Society as regulators of the profession.”

Really? Is there not more than a whiff of hypocrisy and ‘do as I say, not as I do’ in all this?

As Borrisenko correctly notes, the situation is not the same as a complaint under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act where practitioner complaints are received.

“On an existential level it irks me that human resources or communications departments bark on about confidentiality and natural justice while openly saying they’re “transparent”. It’s an oxymoron if ever I saw one.”

No-one here is talking about court proceedings or pre-judging issues, but hiding behind the skirts of confidentiality until the Heron review is completed hardly prevents rumour-swirls and an unhealthy dose of disingenuousness.

Taking the lead here, in the wake of JGH and everything else that the Society has grand-standed about to clean up the law profession’s act, must begin at home. Otherwise, the regulatory function could be removed altogether and David Campbell’s thoughts of ‘trust and confidence’ will evaporate like a politician’s promise.

Why Don't We Know What Is Behind The NZ Law Society 'Workplace Culture' Issue? 2

Who is Jacque Lethbridge?

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