Senior Professional Standards Officer Stephanie Mann is often on the other end of the phone or computer when confidential reports come in from the legal community. In her role at the Law Society she also works with complaints about bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence.
Stephanie also receives the Designated Lawyer reports under rule 11.4 of the Conduct and Client Care Rules, which are triggered when there is a written warning or dismissal due to behaviour such as bullying and harassment, or when a person leaves the law practice within 12 months of being advised that they were being investigated about their conduct.
Recently Kōrero Mō Te Ture | LawTalk caught up with Stephanie to hear more about her role with the Lawyers Complaints Service, and the mandatory reporting obligations for lawyers and designated lawyers due to changes to the Conduct and Client Care Rules
You’re a Senior Professional Standards Officer with the Law Society. What does that involve?
Professional Standards Officers at the Law Society manage communications between complainants, lawyers and a Standards Committee or Screening Panel. We help gather information and prepare documents.
My role is a little different to the other Professional Standards Officers, as I’m normally dealing with confidential reports (rather than formal complaints). I only deal with complaints when they concern prohibited behaviour, for example bullying, harassment or discrimination.
A big part of confidential reports is talking to people who have made them. Mostly we have discussions about process, whether it is practical for them to remain confidential, if that is something they are interested in, and whether more information is needed before the file goes to the next stage.
I also deal with designated lawyer reports. These are a new type of reporting requirement from 1 July 2021, following the changes to the Conduct and Client Care Rules.
Why did you decide to work in this area?
People are at the heart of this work. I was excited to be a part of a new process aimed at making the initial process of contacting the Law Society easier. Lawyers don’t want to report other lawyers and ideally they would never have to. I think it is important to have extra resources to support those that step up and report matters so that they know what to expect. A considered process is especially important when dealing with sensitive issues that can have a huge impact on people’s lives
The Law Society needs to keep working to earn people’s trust and confidence, so that they feel comfortable reporting conduct issues to us. This is important as at the end of the day, the reporting process only works effectively when people are aware of their reporting obligations and take that step to tell the Law Society about behaviour.
What’s your background – what skills and experience do you have that have equipped you for this particular work?
I was previously a civil litigator for close to 11 years, and worked on cases involving insurance, estates, trusts, and health and safety. As a litigator you come across a variety of situations and people from lots of different backgrounds.
Having worked in Christchurch, as well as being Canterbury born and bred, I have seen how much the earthquakes impacted people’s lives at the everyday level and years down the track. Civil litigation is very stressful for clients, just like the reporting process can be for lawyers. However, good communication and empathy can make a hard situation slightly easier.
What is a confidential report, and what does it cover?
A confidential report can be about any breach of the rules. I’ve had allegations of conflicts of interest, misleading the court, dishonesty, bullying, behaviour that happened at a work event, undertakings gone wrong, and dishonesty regarding a lawyer’s interactions with legal aid. The main reason why my front end role was created though was to provide additional resources to those reports that deal with prohibited behaviours.
When should I make a report?
Under Rules 2.8 and 2.9:
- you must report misconduct, and
- you have a discretion to report unsatisfactory conduct.
Mandatory reporting does not apply to victims of suspected misconduct. In making a report, it does not matter if you are unsure whether the issue is one of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct. You can make the report under Rule 2.8 and/or Rule 2.9.
What is a designated lawyer report?
Designated lawyer reports (r 11.4) deal with the prohibited behaviours as well as theft. Since July 2021 when the Rule changes came into effect, these reports have come in after an investigation or employment process has begun but not finished. We have yet to receive a report which deals with a written warning or dismissal.
So far, most reports come after one employee has raised issues about another, an investigation has been started but the employee resigns. This means when the Law Society gets the report, the conduct has not been investigated and both sides have not had the chance to tell their version of events.
What is a designated lawyer report?
The designated lawyer will:
- notify the Law Society on behalf of the law practice, within 14 days, if there is a written warning or dismissal due to prohibited behaviour such as bullying, discrimination or harassment, and
- fulfil the law practice’s annual reporting obligations.
The designated lawyer must also notify the Law Society within 14 days if any person leaves the law practice having been advised within the previous 12 months that the law practice was dissatisfied with, or intended to investigate their conduct in relation to prohibited behaviour.
If an investigation into the alleged behaviour has concluded and there are no reasonable grounds to suspect that the lawyer engaged in misconduct, then no report to the Law Society is required.
How do reports and complaints come to the Law Society?
A lot of people will ring the Law Society’s 0800 line for sensitive complaints (0800 0800 28) to talk about what is needed before sending something in. I have had a couple of phone calls with people who want to talk anonymously through a situation. For instance, someone touched them at a work event, or where they have been sworn and yelled at and their work insulted in an unconstructive manner. One caller was sworn at and their work compared with a kindergartener. As they were the person affected by the behaviour there was no obligation to report, but they found it useful to talk through their options. Knowing the process and understanding the options can help people work out whether they feel comfortable taking things further.
It is an important part of the rules that the person affected by the behaviour is not obliged to make a report. It would not be appropriate for mandatory reporting obligations to apply to victims. That does make it more important though for other lawyers to be aware of their reporting obligations and if they “see something, say something”.
Sometimes these complaints or reports are made by the person who was affected by the prohibited behaviour. Occasionally the complaint/report may be made by a third party. When this happens, it is important for the Law Society or notifier to try and contact the affected party to establish if and how they want to be involved in a Law Society process. The Law Society does not want people affected by prohibited behaviour to be unaware that a process has begun that concerns them. At the same time, we appreciate that being a part of a process can be difficult and will respect the level of involvement that they are comfortable with.
At some stage all reports or complaints must be in writing, and most get sent in to email@example.com. There are forms on the Law Society website which provide guidance about what to include.
What do you find the most rewarding?
When people thank me for helping them understand, or for listening. Making a report about another lawyer can be a really challenging decision to make. That is especially so when the person has been subjected to bullying, discrimination, harassment or violence.
The whole reporting process is not made easier by the fact that the New Zealand legal community is a small one and no one wants to be seen to rock the boat. That does make it more important for people to identify when their mandatory reporting obligations are triggered and act on it.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in this role?
Telling people about how a matter can proceed while informing them that our ability to be totally transparent during that process will be limited by legislation. Improving transparency is one of the reasons why the Law Society has proposed changes to the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act: www.lawsociety.org.nz/news/law-society-statements/changes-to-improve-transparency-and-efficiency-of-lawyers-complaints-service/
Being able to be more transparent with those who are witnesses of behaviour or affected by it, while balancing the rights of the lawyer and natural justice will help people understand that they are a valuable part of the process.
Do you ever receive a report, and think that perhaps the matter could have been avoided if the issue had been properly addressed earlier?
Yes and no. It makes you appreciate that there are often different sides to situations and that there can be stress in someone’s life that may cause them to act inappropriately.
If lawyers can recognise when a colleague is becoming isolated and stressed and provide them with support and pull them up when they cross a line, then that may help avoid issues. Often the ability to fix a problem is directly proportionate to someone else knowing about it.
Tell me more about the designated lawyer reports. What are you looking for in those reports?
As always, and with any report, the devil is in the detail. If we are told that Jane regularly bullied Suzie, that does not provide us with any information about what the behaviour is, or how often it happened. The more information people can provide us about the “what, when, where, why and how” the better.
Reports can also be initially provided with some information redacted, such as redacting the names of affected parties or witnesses. It’s important that people know that the anonymity of people may not be able to be maintained throughout the process. However, anonymity can give the firm the time to comply with their 14-day reporting obligation and then later speak to the affected person about the report and support them at a time when they might feel vulnerable.
What do you do in your spare time – how do you counteract the stress of dealing with these types of complaints/reports?
Aside from spending time with my husband and two sons (2 years and 4 ½ years, the half is very important to him), I read a lot of fantasy novels. Nothing helps you escape from reality quite like a story with magic and mystical creatures. My current favourite fantasy author is Brandon Sanderson.
More information for readers:
Read the Guidance on Professional Standards and Reporting Obligations to make sure you’re clear on your obligations before the 1 July 2022 deadline:
To make a report or complaint:
If you or someone else has been affected by bullying, discrimination, harassment or other forms of prohibited behaviour, there is support and help available:
Vitae Legal Community Counselling service: phone 0508 664 981
You can access up to six free counselling sessions through Vitae. The service is available to anyone in a legal workplace including lawyers and non-lawyers.
- Free phone Vitae on 0508 664 981
- Complete Vitae’s online referral form
- Download the Vitae New Zealand app from the App store or Google Play.
Law Care: phone 0800 0800 28
Use this confidential service to discuss sensitive matters with a Law Society staff member. Our specially trained staff can provide a range of options and support services to help you.
National Friends Panel Sensitive List
The is a list of lawyers who are available to discuss sensitive matters such as workplace bullying and harassment. Contact details for the individual Friends are available on the Law Society website, and you can reach out to them directly.
If you’re the subject of a complaint: