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"We men need to take an honest look at ourselves"

02 May 2018

Making sense of the questions over the culture of legal practice and making progress to positive change requires honest conversations among all lawyers ... and men in particular, says David Dunbar, President of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

Writing in the May issue of the branch newsletter Council Brief, Mr Dunbar says it is all too easy to fall into a paradigm solely from our personal experience that masks the experiences of others or allows the treating of uncomfortable truths as rare aberrations.

"Bullying and dismissive behaviour is not the sole preserve of men. I've heard enough of women in senior positions acting unacceptably and unprofessionally to know that. Even so, we men need to take an honest look at ourselves," he says.

"I openly recognise that I need to listen to others to gain insight on this issue. It takes courage and being open minded to challenge my own assumptions and actively contribute to debate and change."

The views of male lawyers

Mr Dunbar quotes the views of a number of male lawyers on the recent news of harassment and bullying in the legal profession.

He says it has made men feel ashamed, with one male commenting: "The number and nature of the reported incidents is truly shocking. I had no appreciation of the magnitude of the problem. I am embarassed that I had such a lack of awareness."

"It's true that many of us have not seen men bullying women colleagues first-hand," he says and then quotes another male lawyer: "Maybe I worked in the wrong places, not in a large firm, much of the time initially in the smaller regions. Many of the smart lawyers I respected and worked with or for were women. Perhaps I had a jaundiced or skewed view."

"This issue of bullying seems deep-seated," he says, with the views of another male lawyer: "The news over the past few months, in some ways, does not surprise me. Law School did have the blokes who went to the right schools, played the right sports, came from the right families and seemed destined to be their fathers' sons in law firms where family name and school were important. I had heard that 'work hard, play hard' was part of the culture and came across women - and men - who found the whole thing stressful, frustrating and demeaning and got out."

"An alpha dog culture"

As another said: "There is no getting away from the fact that our profession has in many quarters been something of an 'alpha dog' culture and different people react to that, or work within it, in different ways. I feel that, as a new generation of lawyers comes into senior roles within firms, and on the bench, a different environment is being created."

One can only hope so, says David Dunbar in response to that comment, but whatever the case, he is sure the majority of his senior colleagues don't and won't accept it. He quotes another lawyer: "As a male practitioner I see the issue not so much as one of culture but one of a lack of basic human decency and, as I understand the allegations at their worst, serious criminality."

"Something has changed," says another male lawyer. "Certainly, one thing has been lost - respect. Talking to a senior female colleague recently she agreed. When I began practice the basic rule, in litigation anyway, was that you treated everyone with respect. Today's opponent was tomorrow's ally and there was certainly camaraderie. Of course, the Bench and Court staff had to be particularly respected. Sex was not much of an issue. More important was ability."

Position and power and arrogance

Is it just about gender or also about position and power? Mr Dunbar asks.One lawyer says while the majority of reported instances involve misconduct by males towards females, "I am aware of instances where males have been mistreated or harassed by females."

Another male lawyer adds: "I did not encounter it much. However, I have encountered a certain arrogance - from both men and women in large law firms. That seems to have become more common. Also, it seems, people in smaller practices increasingly seem to believe that arrogance and aggression are more important than respect. Regarding bullying, harassment and gender equality, I worry that some women can be bullies too."

Another talks about a culture of entitlement: "For some reason, if you're higher up the heap, male or female, some believe it gives you the right to pick on people below, scream, yell, and people will accept it."

What sort of culture do we want? Mr Dugdale asks, and then quotes another colleague: "Work places should be safe places for all practitioners and free from bullying and sexual harassment."

What can be done about it?

"There's clearly a role for the Law Society, the branch Council and each of us individually," says David Dunbar.

"I expect the Law Society to lead change and be at the forefront of providing and facilitating opportunities for male practitioners to stand up and affect change," says another practitioner. "[However], male practitioners do need to be champions of change and I want to be part of that change to stand up, support and lead change."

"Those involved need to be educated and rehabilitated where appropriate - or punished where appropriate, and to the extent that I might be able to contribute to that, will do all I can to achieve appropriate ends," one male lawyer says.

It needs brave conversations and honest self-appraisal, Mr Dunbar says. One male lawyer describes the approach in his firm: "In my own practice we have tried to address gender, culture and other issues through focusing on respect for each other's values, whatever they are. This also applies to our clients and colleagues in other parts of the profession. This does not mean we are OTT, politically correct all the time. It does mean we try to be sensitive and, when pulled up, apologise and change our attitudes. For me, it has been a healthy process. Being open to criticism from my staff has been very much a part of this. At times I would like to feel that I could frankly tell a colleague that they should change their ways without the issue being seen as a personal or professional attack."

And, it needs blunt talk: "Honestly, it doesn't seem that hard - don't sexually assault people, don't regard young employees as appropriate sexual partners and if one's decency or self-restraint diminishes after a few drinks, give up the booze or don't drink with employees present. I think the best role for middle-age males is to make it as clear as possible that they will not acquiesce in this sort of thing."

David Dunbar concludes by encouraging all males in the legal profession to be part of the conversation around advocating for a better culture "particularly towards our female colleagues".

"And women, I encourage you to be open to our input and views. Let's talk. Let's be part of a change."

Last updated on the 16th September 2019