New Zealand Law Society - Workplace culture in the legal industry: How candidates feel post-Bazley

Workplace culture in the legal industry: How candidates feel post-Bazley

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Much is made of people and culture as differentiators for employees when weighing up one company over another, which is only highlighted further as competition for the brightest and best becomes tighter. But there seems to be an increasing perception that the reality doesn’t match the blurb in the glossy brochure or the slick words on a website.

In the wake of high-profile scandals which have hit the legal profession locally, as well as the shocking results of the New Zealand Law Society’s own Legal Workplace Environment Survey, legal recruitment specialist McLeod Duminy has polled candidates to get a better understanding of how revelations about the ills in law firm cultures affect their approach to looking for a job in law.

“There’s no question now that candidates will simply take claims by employers at face value and instead rely on conducting their own research. Many are more likely to make decisions based on their own informal due diligence rather than believing what the firms themselves say,” says Kirsty Spears, McLeod Duminy Legal Recruitment Consultant.

“And some candidates are pointing out that a safe, respectful environment is non-negotiable.”

She says that after the publication of the Law Society’s survey results and the Dame Margaret Bazley report into incidents at Russell McVeagh, the recruitment firm was curious to know if candidates are now considering new factors when looking at taking a job. “The short answer to that is ‘yes, they are’.”

Firms not trusted

McLeod Duminy put multiple questions to some 30 candidates; the overall response indicates that lawyers don’t trust firms to tell them about the culture and want to hear from peers and ex-employees. The reports have also heightened the concerns of candidates around workplace culture, with many expressing an increased interest in how law firms have responded to the revelations and how they have addressed any previous issues, many of which could be described as ‘open secrets’ in the past.

All responses are necessarily anonymous to protect the career prospects of the lawyers who provided their thoughts. After all, the chances of employment may not be helped for a candidate who says this: “I’ve read the report cover to cover, and nothing in it was really surprising. It hammered home that companies that boast of a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture are often using this as a trite phrase to cover up excessive hours and unrealistic expectations, which staff members then deal with unhealthy drinking habits.”

Said another: “Always do your due diligence on a firm by doing your own research on those you will be working with and for. Researching the public face of a firm will not always help a candidate and, in practice, speaking to people who work there or have left will help more.”

One pointed out that women can feel intimidated in the legal profession: “I am more aware of the negative connotations that can be drawn where there is a predominance of males.” And McLeod Duminy have seen examples of female candidates not being interested in a firm where the partnership was all male and there were no senior women at all.

And a candidate who says she was already conscious of the issues raised in the reports now wants to know more about why a new position has come up and why an employee has left. “[That’s] to make sure that it’s not due to a malfunctioning work environment or management. I also pay more attention to the male/female ratios at all levels of the firm. These documents have made it easier to discuss these topics, because firms are very conscious of these issues.”

Better awareness of remedies

Candidates have heightened awareness not only of the possibility of inappropriate behaviour, but also the remedies available. “I would look to see if a firm had a sexual harassment policy – that might be a good start, but also speaking to other lawyers in the firm to see if they feel respected and safe and whether senior lawyers are accessible would be a better guide.”

It has also added to the trend of millennials giving status and income a back seat to lifestyle, balance and a positive work environment. One respondent noted that the recent reports have “reinforced my desire to work with strong and intellectually robust firms, rather than those that adhere to a ‘tick box’ corporate culture”. Another added that “it’s becoming more acceptable to choose more healthy lifestyles over high status jobs”.

When workplace cultures don’t align with the claims, this can lead to employees leaving. “I’ve always looked to work in a firm that has a good culture with a good reputation. When I have landed in a place that hasn’t been what it held itself out to be, I’ve moved on,” says a candidate.

What has emerged strongly is a sense that bad behaviour is not acceptable and cannot be swept under the carpet as it has been in the past. “I want to work in a place where all employees are respected and there is no bullying, and that hasn’t changed. The key change is it is now more out in the open and acceptable to talk about it and ask questions,” says one.

There is work to be done by New Zealand’s law firms, says Kirsty Spears. “The messages are mixed on how well firms have addressed the cultural issues exposed by the Law Society and the Bazley report. Despite a few candidates being heartened by the conversations being had at their own firm, most candidates we’ve spoken with indicate that their firm hasn’t done enough. And a feeling remains that policies seeking to address these issues is only a start and there should be more discussion and an emphatic rejection of any unacceptable behaviour.”

Christina Kruger is a Director at McLeod Duminy.

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