The President of the New Zealand Law Society Kathryn Beck says that she wants to be clear that the Law Society was aware of sexual harassment and bullying in the profession, but that it was shocked at the scale of the problem as detailed in its survey.
Ms Beck says she is now committed to building relationships across the sector – including with the Law Society’s critics – to eliminate bullying and sexual harassment in the law.
Last week the Law Society published results from its first survey of lawyers in the society’s 150-year history about this issue. The survey showed nearly one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed at work and more than half of all lawyers had been bullied.
“When confronted with the scale of crisis in our profession, lawyers everywhere are now asking questions around their own leadership. Have they tolerated behaviours they shouldn’t? Have they turned a blind eye and – deep down – have they known something was not right in their workplaces and culture, but failed to act?”
The Law Society was approached about concerns at Russell McVeagh on a strictly confidential basis. When the experiences of the young women were made public, it became apparent that they were not alone and more similar accounts kept coming. While work had been done in the area of gender equality and workplace health, it was clear that it was nowhere near enough.
“We recognised that we didn’t have a clear picture of what was happening in all of our legal workplaces. We had to know the extent of the problem. When we got that picture, it was shocking.”
Kathryn Beck wrote to lawyers in New Zealand on 30 May outlining the scale of the problem and requesting immediate action. She says 90% of responses received from lawyers since have been positive, with a clear commitment to action.
Those less than positive responses largely focused on a denial that there was a problem no different from other professions as well as responses from those who still don’t accept the extent of the harassment and bullying.
“I’m aware there’s a lot of anger around what this report tells us, including from those who, through their own experience, never doubted the results.
"As a leader of our profession, I’m sorry that we have got to this point of crystal clear and common understanding as to the scale of our problem in different ways much slower than we should have. I accept this took too long.
"I’m committed to building relationships across the sector – including with those people and organisations who rightly have been critics of the leadership of the legal community. My aim is to eliminate sexual harassment and bullying and to build a culture that is inclusive and safe for all lawyers to be proud of.
"The release of the survey results last week has forced people and organisations to face unpleasant truths. Now this anger and disappointment must translate into a unified profession committed to a very different future.”