By Nick Butcher
Much of the focus of the sexual harassment, assault and bullying allegations publicly directed at the law profession have stemmed from the experience of a group of Victoria University law students who were part of a summer clerk programme more than two years ago.
LawTalk travelled to Canterbury University in Christchurch to meet three final year students at the School of Law.
Hannah Lindo, Bex Falconer and Ben Hardisty are all on the cusp of finishing their law studies and are eager to work in the profession.
As the conversation unravelled, it was apparent that the serious allegations that were pointed at law firm Russell McVeagh didn’t just affect Victoria University students.
The students from Canterbury University told LawTalk that rumours have been swirling for some time about one of the country’s most prestigious firms.
“They didn’t come as a surprise. You hear whisperings, not from specific people but it was a ‘thing’ going through law school that I was aware of. Both my parents are in the profession and rumours travel quickly in a small country,” says Ms Lindo.
“When it all came out in the media, it was a case of ‘I’d heard the rumours spreading through law school’. But once it all came out, it was, ‘so this is real life and this has happened to real people’,” says Ms Falconer.
“I was definitely in a similar boat. I spoke to people from Victoria at the end of last year and there was talk about it then, but it was hard to gauge how serious it was when it was at that stage just talk between students. It wasn’t a surprise but there was certainly an element of shock that it was 100% legitimate,” says Mr Hardisty.
Clerk programmes are opportunities to be mentored by senior lawyers. They’re also a chance to prove your work ethic and ability in the hope of securing a job at the firm. They’re highly competitive, but then that’s the nature of the law profession.
But there’s also a perceived and attractive social element to the experience in that there’s opportunity to mix and mingle, network and enjoy the trappings of a successful law firm such as an open bar.
But is that reality or just the experience at a few firms?
It wasn’t for Bex Falconer, who says no one forced her to drink excessively at the mid-sized firm she was at.
“It was definitely a work hard and learn a lot atmosphere. I think people respect your decision on how intensely you want to take advantage of the open bar. But then there is always that stigma of ‘if I don’t drink, I’m going to look stuck up, cold and closed off from being able to speak with people’. But I think it’s about finding the happy medium,” she says.
Hannah Lindo has not worked as a clerk yet but does feel the law profession has a culture based around alcohol.
“While I haven’t had that experience, I’d hope that I wouldn’t be subjected to having alcohol poured down my throat excessively, which would be wildly inappropriate,” she says.
Ben Hardisty clerked last summer and says while there were work drinks on a Friday afternoon, there was no pressure to be there.
“Not everyone would go. Some people would and just have a diet coke and then go back to work or home. Those who wanted to have a few alcoholic drinks were very welcome to. It really depended on people’s workload. Often I’d hear people say, ‘not this week for me’. I wasn’t at one of the really large law firms but the culture of the mid-size firm I was at was really enjoyable. Even the work Christmas party was certainly not at the level some of the media has portrayed law firm Christmas parties at,” he says.
Despite the students’ more sedate experiences, the law profession is still blighted with a stain of irresponsible after-hours behaviour and, because of the seriousness of the allegations, Russell McVeagh is undergoing an external review of its culture.
The New Zealand Law Society Regulatory Working Group is investigating whether the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces is up to the test.
Do these work streams put students in a better position with potential employers?
The three final-year students have all been through, or are going through, the interview process for clerk jobs this coming summer.
As Ms Falconer says they’re in a position where they can go into an interview and start a conversation about an issue that has been going on for a long time, but has not been spoken about.
“I can comfortably say, ‘I’m really interested in your firm but what are your harassment policies because I want to know that I am going to be safe here’. I went through my interviews before the allegations came out. But I think if I was going through it again, I’d ask what their policies on harassment and bullying are,” she says.
Mr Hardisty says it’s not the same for men.
“It’s a bit different. In some firms I chose to ask and with some I didn’t. There was certainly no thought behind it as to why I should. It was always received well if I brought it up. Finally we are in an environment where we can talk about these things,” he says.
But while it might be less likely that a male is sexually harassed, he could still be subject to other forms of bullying.
“Certainly and I’d want to work at a place that had the best interests of all staff. On a reputational level, who’d want to work at a firm that would risk reputational damage that has affected a firm such as Russell McVeagh, so there’s lots of elements as to why a young male lawyer would want to be assured that the policies are up to the standard they should be at,” he says.
Ms Lindo says she was torn by what to do but in the end she didn’t bring up harassment and bullying policies during her interviews and the policies weren’t offered to her either.
Her position was in contrast to, and perhaps a cautious response to, a panel discussion at the law school where one of the lawyers on the panel encouraged students to ask potential employers about their respective harassment and bullying policies.
“I was conscious of being painted as a potential complainer. It’s such a competitive environment in trying to get these positions. I was concerned because I have a lot of gender equality-related projects on my CV and that’s obviously something I’m very passionate about. I was worried that bringing up policies might affect my chances of getting a clerkship. I’m sure all firms have some skeletons in their closet and the last thing they want is media attention if something was to happen during a programme,” she says.
Following the sexual harassment allegations, which weren’t just pointed at Russell McVeagh, the University of Canterbury School of Law Dean, Professor Ursula Cheer reacted swiftly with the introduction of an Internships and Harassment Policy.
“Professor Cheer told us the University is behind us all the way. It’s really nice to be told this. It’s a ‘you’ represent us and ‘we’ represent you sort of thing,” Miss Falconer says.
So how do you put the University policy into practice?
The two-page document defines harassment, whether sexual or racial and also provides a list of situations to look out for in a workplace environment, which could lead to unwanted attention.
“It was really helpful to have those behavioural descriptions. I came straight from school to university and so I’ve not been exposed to the realities of the commercial environment where there are partners and senior associates and so forth. I’ve worked in hospitality throughout my university studies,” says Hannah Lindo.
Ben Hardisty says the policy is a valuable tool for students as it removes any doubt a student may have in relation to legitimacy of a possible complaint situation.
“A definition from the law school gives us the knowledge on exactly what to look for, what is acceptable and what isn’t. It was a hard stance by the law school. It’s practical in a reassuring way and explains to students exactly where the line is drawn in a workplace. You’re able to say, ‘this has happened to me and it is here in the policy from the law school saying that it isn’t right’,” he says.
Bex Falconer explains how it would be convenient to get into a new job and ignore anything untoward that might occur because you’re so grateful to have that first job.
“It would be so easy to say ‘that happened, but I just don’t want to deal with it or let it affect me in any way’. However, I think we are now able to say, ‘actually, that’s not ok, although my career is super important, I deserve to live my life feeling confident in a place where I spend 40 or 50 hours a week’. We have a great opportunity to be able to stand up for ourselves,” she says.
What about the power imbalance within the senior ranks of law?
It’s common knowledge that over 60% of law school graduates are women and that just over 50% of those holding practising certificates are women. Yet the glaring problem of equality remains in that only about 30% of partners and directors of law firms are women.
The number of women who practise law has been closing on men gradually over the past 20 years.
Law is definitely no longer a man’s world, despite many of the law firm partners and directors being men from the so-called baby boomer generation.
Miss Lindo says that more women than men tend to stay home with children for years that would normally have been about career progression.
“If I was to have a child, I couldn’t return to work three months later, so there is evidence showing that it does put some women at a disadvantage. But things are becoming more flexible nowadays and perhaps back then it wasn’t the case. My mother was a lawyer and definitely didn’t progress at the same speed as my father who is also a lawyer,” she says.
Technology is helping to pave the way for a fairer system, with people being able to work remotely.
“There’s a lot of good research suggesting that in 15 or 20 years a lot more of us will be working from home so that’s great for women that want to protect their careers,” Miss Falconer says.
She says, however, that often when viewing websites of potential law firms to work at the partnership profiles are predominantly of men over 55.
Weighing in on the Gender Equality Charter
It’s possible that some of the firms these students will work in may have the New Zealand Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter embedded in their work culture.
The charter is about creating an equal pathway for women to achieve senior positions in the law profession and asks workplaces where law is practised to undertake an assortment of commitments to achieve this, including undergoing unconscious bias training and gender pay audits.
“Those two things stood out for me. But even for me, there are things that I think about and I pick up on my own prejudices against my own gender because of how society conditions us to think. But, for example, take Ben and I. Why in, say, three years’ time, if we are working in the same firm, and the only difference is our gender, why should there be a difference in our pay,” says Hannah Lindo.
Mr Hardisty agrees but stresses the business must be able to show that both employees are even in relation to the skills they bring.
Bex Falconer says workplaces need to employ the Charter for genuine reasons, not as a public relations exercise.
“I think the Charter would attract me to work at a firm but I’d need to know that they are actually using it, not just jump on it, say they’re doing it but aren’t. It’s so easy to polish your own reputation when someone else’s is being thrown in the dump,” she says.
She says firms that sign up to the Charter should publish their audit results and prove themselves to their employees.
“Total transparency because gender pay gaps in particular make no sense to me,” she says.
But as Mr Hardisty points out, what about the possible scenario of a period of parental leave of nine months and would the woman, on her return, then expect to be remunerated at a rate nine months behind a male colleague of same ability? If she then had another child would she then be 18 months behind?
“That’s difficult to answer. On one hand you can’t say it’s a disadvantage to women having children because we can’t have a world where women don’t have children,” Miss Lindo says.
However, as Mr Hardisty notes, there is also male parental leave and men wouldn’t want to view that as disadvantageous to their careers.
“There’s also a huge stigma around this. A woman having a child doesn’t just benefit her. If I returned to work after two years, I’d expect to be a couple of years behind if I was just a lawyer, but if I was a partner, no way, I’d expect to return to the same conditions as the other partners,” says Bex Falconer.
Since the widespread allegations of sexual harassment and bullying became a regular media headline, the New Zealand Law Society has turned the spotlight on itself and looked at how it can best address the issues.
The media has in many ways been applying X-ray vision to everything the Law Society has done to manage what was labelled as “Law’s dirty little secret” by one news organisation.
Do students know the regulator?
Most law students who have attended university straight from school and have graduated will be about 23 or 24-years-old.
So is admission to the bar their first contact with the Law Society?
“We have a lot of societies here on the university level but it would be safe to say that but I’ve never seen or heard from the Law Society during my studies. I’m not particularly important and while it’s not a bad thing because we are not lawyers, we are the next generation and are going to be the Law Society one day. Just introducing themselves and saying ‘hey, we care about you because you will be us in 20 years’ time’ would be nice,” Miss Falconer says.
Hannah Lindo says the recent sexual harassment allegations are about their demographic.
“I think when something like this happens, and it’s a really big deal for the profession, talk to us. Tell us who you are and what dealings you’ll be having with us in the future. Even if it was part of the Professionals course, perhaps explain the ethical expectations of us for our careers going forward. I know we learn this in ethics but it’s not coming from the Law Society,” she says.
Ben Hardisty agrees.
“I have met Kathryn Beck (President of the Law Society) through the bullying and harassment issues but otherwise I wouldn’t have had any involvement with the Law Society. Even during summer clerk work. We do that three months of the year, so some earlier contact would be good, even a recruitment evening. Create a Law Society table so that we know who to go to if we have any problems when we start our careers,” he says.
Mr Hardisty is hoping to practise law in a large corporate commercial firm. Bex Falconer is planning to work in a private commercial law firm, but with experience she hopes to work in immigration law with refugees. Hannah Lindo says her interest is in employment law or environmental law working on resource management act issues.