New Zealand Law Society - Dame Margaret reflects on the big issues of the legal profession

Dame Margaret reflects on the big issues of the legal profession

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In the wake of Dame Margaret Bazley’s review into sexual misconduct at Russell McVeagh, the public sector trouble shooter spoke to LawTalk about the “other” insidious behaviours that must urgently be addressed within the legal profession.

Dame Margaret Bazley
Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom

When Dame Margaret Bazley was asked to investigate Russell McVeagh she knew she was looking at sexual harassment and misconduct. What surprised her were other characteristics rife within the firm and the profession as a whole: bullying, excessive hours, sexism and unconscious bias.

“I’ve never seen such a culture of fear in any other work group as there is in the legal profession.”

Dame Margaret is well qualified to make that observation. Her journey through a myriad of New Zealand workplaces has spanned more than 60 years. She has run organisations since the 1950s. In 1988 she became the first female Secretary of the male-dominated Ministry of Transport. This appointment prompted a meeting to work out what to call her, as her predecessor’s moniker (“Sir”) would not do. “Ma’am” was decided upon, but one traffic officer missed the memo and called her “Dear”. Casual sexism wasn’t a term used back then, but it’s an apt description of what she faced, despite being in charge.

She’s led numerous public sectors, including welfare and health and spent a decade as the Chair of the Fire Service. She’s steered and chaired high profile inquiries, including reviews into police conduct and the legal aid system. Her strength is spotting dysfunctional workplaces and practices.

More than 250 people engaged in her most recent exacting review. Many of them had also worked in other law firms. They told Dame Margaret these undermining behaviours happen in most large law firms. Her insights are not limited to Russell McVeagh. They apply to the whole legal profession.

Pip Greenwood and Malcolm Crotty listen to Dame Margaret Bazley
Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood and Chair Malcolm Crotty listen as Dame Margaret Bazley releases findings of the inquiry into sexual harassment and assault of summer interns at the law firm. Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom

“Most told me that Russell McVeagh is a great place to work, that they had a fantastic experience there, they enjoyed working with top quality lawyers and had excellent training while working on complex and leading edge legal issues.” She expects this is the case throughout the profession. The Legal Workplace Environment Survey showed that 79% of lawyers get a great deal of satisfaction from their job.

Similarly, staff revealed the fear also starts from a positive place.

“I think it’s because they are so bright and so ambitious. I don’t think anyone ever comes in to be just an ordinary, basic lawyer; they are all going to be top lawyers.”

But that drive is then exploited. She found young lawyers fear their careers will be stymied if they call out bad behaviour or ask to be treated with equality and respect.

They fear being seen as “not keen enough” or “not having what it takes” if they ask for things they are contractually owed, like time off in lieu. So they don’t. As a result, they remain silent about the personal cost.

Inadequate management

Malcolm Crotty, Chair of Russell McVeagh board
Chair Malcolm Crotty at the release of results of the inquiry into sexual harassment and assault. Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom

Anecdotes of relentlessly long hours are easier to find than a black blazer in the office. One junior lawyer told Dame Margaret the only time he was not at work was one hour before he got there, and one hour before he went to bed.

“They seem to pick that up the day they walk in the door, that’s how you are to behave,” laments Dame Margaret.

Lawyers hang around all day for work to be given to them, only for that work to turn up at 6pm when a partner clears their inbox. Dame Margaret blames this on inadequate management and poor organisation by a few partners.

Bad manners and a lack of decency have also inflicted workplace wounds.

“Some support staff have a pretty miserable time – not just from partners but from everyone.”

Some secretarial staff told of feeling invisible, of not feeling included or valued.

“[Lawyers] don’t see them as real people; because they are not lawyers. One of them told me she felt like a ‘nothing’.”

She is demanding change. Good management of people, not just casework, must be a prerequisite for senior positions. Junior lawyers must have a voice in the workplace and it must be recognised they might not be the best judge of whether they have too much on their plate. Long hours must be the exception, not the norm and overtime must be recognised and compensated consistently.

Reform overdue

Simon Mount QC
Simon Mount QC at the release of the inquiry findings. Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Newsroom

Dame Margaret believes that reform of the legal workplace is long overdue. She encourages leaders of large law firms and all members of the profession to stand together to make the required changes. She says it is no longer a question of how extensive the transformation of the workplace culture must be, but who is going to lead it.

“This is the Law Society’s opportunity to stand up and take that lead. If they don’t, the Government will.”

She supports the Law Society’s establishment of both the regulatory working group, led by Dame Silvia Cartwright, and the ‘culture’ taskforce that is currently being set up to look at ways to prevent, detect and report intolerable workplace behaviour.

“I see both of those initiatives as absolutely essential.”

She says the New Zealand Law Society is more than capable of providing the leadership and advocacy needed to rebuild confidence in the integrity of the profession.

She is also encouraged by the steps that the Law Society and Russell McVeagh have taken to combat these problems so far. Other firms have also agreed to use her recommendations as a blueprint so they too can provide inclusive, safe workplaces. There is a lot of work being done and she believes there is genuine buy in for cultural transformation.

Dame Margaret is emphatic: the profession must change and expectations of what is reasonable behaviour must come from the top. The hierarchical structure that creates such a stark power imbalance in legal firms is an outdated business model that must change. The workplace must be one where everyone feels valued and respected.

Charlotte Shipman is a Wellington journalist.

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