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Commitment to tackle cultural crisis within legal profession

30 May 2018

A comprehensive survey of the New Zealand legal profession shows nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life and more than half of all lawyers have been bullied at some time in their working life.

The New Zealand Law Society commissioned Colmar Brunton to carry out a confidential survey of the 13,662 lawyers in New Zealand. 3,516 lawyers completed the survey (a response rate of 26%), giving it a margin of error of +/- 1.7%.  The full 50-page report is available here.

New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck thanked the courageous young women who, in telling their stories of being sexually harassed at work and leading this discussion, have allowed light to be shone into corners of the legal profession which have been under cover for too long.

"As lawyers, we are careful with words and we let facts speak for themselves. When nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life, when more than half of lawyers have been bullied at some time in their working life, when nearly 30% of lawyers feel major changes are needed to the culture of their workplace, and when 40% of lawyers under 30 believe major changes are needed to their workplace culture, we must call a spade a spade - there is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession."

Kathryn Beck said she was not interested in relative performance on these measures against other parts of the New Zealand workforce or population.

"This is about the legal profession. New Zealanders expect our profession to operate to the highest standards of integrity with a commitment to fairness, equity and justice. This survey makes it crystal clear that we are not meeting that expectation, we are failing to keep our own people safe and we cannot stand for this.

"The results of this survey are deeply saddening and I know lawyers across New Zealand will be very disappointed at what this report makes so clear. However, it is from this clarity that real change will come.

"The process of cultural change has started. Every practising lawyer has a responsibility for driving this change through their own behaviour and what they are prepared to tolerate from others."

Kathryn Beck said, like the legal profession generally, the Law Society had been caught flat-footed by the wave of sexual harassment and assault accusations. She acknowledged the Law Society had not provided the cultural leadership to the profession that, with the benefit of this research, is now so obviously required.

"I'm disappointed that this research is a surprise to us. I'm disappointed we heard about so much through the media. I'm disappointed that, for whatever reason, people chose not to report their experiences to us. I'm disappointed that for so many people, the law has not been a safe profession.

"Today marks a significant step in change. We are making this full report available to every New Zealander and I'm writing to every lawyer today seeking their active commitment and leadership in building a culture that is safe, inclusive, fair and just.

"This is the New Zealand Law Society's commitment and I request all lawyers and stakeholders to work with us on this goal and hold us to account on it."  

Kathryn Beck said the Law Society was calling for representatives from across its profession to put themselves forward for a new task force to drive culture and systems change across the profession and to eliminate bullying and sexual harassment.

The regulatory working group that the Law Society has already established, chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, is further examining many of these matters and potential changes to regulatory systems that guide the legal profession.

"We will be similarly transparent and up-front in how we share the findings of this important piece of work."

Kathryn Beck said the courage of young women speaking up about being sexually abused and harassed in the workplace has become a force of global disruption.

"The New Zealand legal profession is now in the middle of a major cultural disruption. It cannot and will not return to the way it was. While painful, embarrassing and difficult to confront, this disruption is a gift from courageous young people that the New Zealand legal community will not squander."

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Last updated on the 30th May 2018