New Zealand Law Society - The Gender Equality Charter: What role can the In-house legal community play?

The Gender Equality Charter: What role can the In-house legal community play?

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Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance. – Verna Myers

In April 2018, the New Zealand Law Society launched its Gender Equality Charter (Tūtohinga Ira Tangata Ōrite). The Charter is a set of commitments around gender equality aimed at improving the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession.

To date 115 workplaces (including law firms, barristers, in-house teams and sole legal counsel), which cover over 2,900 lawyers practising in New Zealand, have signed up to the Charter – this represents over 20% of the legal profession. The Law Society is aiming to get 30% of the legal profession signed up to the Charter by this month – being the one year anniversary of the Charter’s launch. A list of signatories to the Charter can be found on the Law Society website under Law Society Services/Women in the Legal Profession.

Earlier this year, Law Society President, Kathryn Beck said: “109 signatories is a strong result to start the year with, but we really want to see the numbers grow significantly. It’s about creating a transparent culture in your workplace, where all lawyers, regardless of gender, feel valued and are provided with equal opportunity to grow professionally.”

The Charter aims to bring about culture change in the legal profession. Fazleen Ismail, General Manager, Law Reform at the Law Society says: “The Charter is not about compliance but about being part of a movement for positive change, which aligns with our priority of culture change in the legal profession.”

Signing up to the Charter is the first step. Signatories commit to:

  • Lead from the top,
  • Make a plan and take action,
  • Measure progress.

The specific commitments – which are both impactful and achievable – include tackling unconscious bias, encouraging flexible working, closing any gender pay gap and promoting equitable instructions. Signatories agree to meet these commitments over a two year period and report on progress in doing so to the Law Society.

The Law Society wants to support the profession in making the decision to sign up to, and meet the commitments of, the Charter – by providing free and practical online tools and resources, sharing success stories and checking in regularly with signatories. By way of practical example, signatories can conduct unconscious bias training using the free NZLS CLE Ltd webinar or by undertaking training their organisation already offers (or plans to offer) to its staff.

Why “just” gender?

Gender inequality has been a long standing and visible problem in the workplace. As such the Law Society decided to start with gender inequality but, while the Charter focuses on women in the legal profession, the Charter commitments are relevant to other aspects of diversity and there is no reason why signatories cannot apply the principles of the Charter to addressing inequality and encouraging diversity more broadly. Indeed, commitments under the Charter such as unconscious bias training are expected to address diversity in a much wider sense.

Is the Charter relevant to in-house legal teams?

The Charter was designed by the Women’s Advisory Panel – who themselves have wide representation – to be as inclusive as possible and to be equally applicable to all legal professionals. As such, the Charter is open to the whole legal profession and the principles in the Charter are equally relevant to in-house lawyers as they are to law firms, sole practitioners and barristers. Furthermore, the Charter is of benefit not only to teams where they see inequality and inclusion needs to be addressed but equally for teams who feel they comply with all of the principles of the Charter as in signing up they show their support for gender equality and inclusion, their openness to continued improvement and their comfort in being held to account.

To date 14 in-house legal teams have signed up to the Charter. Auckland Council, Crown Law, Treasury, Contact Energy and Fonterra led the way as some of the first in-house teams to sign up to the Charter. Of the in-house signatories, a large proportion of them are government legal teams with only a couple of corporates having signed up. It is hoped that we will see more corporate in-house legal teams becoming signatories.

Fonterra is one of the Charter’s corporate signatories. Andrew Cordner, Director of Legal at Fonterra, says:Fonterra was an early adopter of the Law Society and the Bar Association’s Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy and it felt natural for our legal team to take the next step, in line with Fonterra’s broader commitment to gender equity, and sign up to the Charter requirements.”

The fact that your corporate has existing programmes around diversity should not prevent corporates signing up.

“The Charter’s principles align with Fonterra’s focus and approach to diversity and inclusion, are consistent with Fonterra’s thinking around sustainability in a broader sense, and reflects our core corporate value of Do What’s Right. In meeting some of the Charter commitments (such as unconscious bias training), the Fonterra legal team will look to take advantage of internal corporate programmes and resources in this space” says Mr Cordner.

The wider role in-house legal teams can play

In-house legal teams, by signing up to and supporting the Charter, play a vital role in leading culture change in the area of gender (and wider) equality and inclusion, including by:

In-house lawyers as signatories

In-house lawyers now make up almost a quarter of the legal profession and so must be part of the body of signatories if significant numbers of lawyers are going to be covered by the Charter.

Encouraging others

In-house lawyers and teams can play a role in encouraging law firms, barristers and other in-house legal teams to sign up to the Charter. In-house lawyers can ask the question of firms or barristers they instruct as to whether they intend to sign up to the Charter (and if not, why not) or how they are tracking with meeting their commitments under the Charter. Being a signatory to the Charter could become part of the selection criteria for briefing law firms and barristers or selecting legal panel participants.

Equitable briefing

In-house teams can themselves apply the equitable instructions principles of the Charter in selecting the law firms or barristers chambers they brief and paying attention to what lawyers and barristers within such firms/chambers they instruct are doing the work. Equitable briefing principles can be applied to all areas of law and not only to New Zealand firms/chambers briefed but also to those briefed outside of New Zealand. Catherine Thompson, General Manager, External Relations and General Counsel at Contact says: “When I am thinking about seeking external support or recruiting I am deliberate in my consideration of a diverse team and then look at how to ensure the work will be carried out in an inclusive way – so that the diversity has an impact. I believe as an instructing counsel I have the responsibility to influence the growth of an inclusive and diverse profession.”

Wider application of the Charter principles

In-house legal teams can play a role in applying the wider principles of the Charter to other teams in their workplaces or right across the business the in-house legal team supports. As set out in the Charter guidelines, Charter signatories may wish to, for example, conduct gender pay audits and encourage and support flexible working for all employees, not just lawyers. The Law Society has seen at least one in-house legal team who intended that the Charter guidelines would be applied right across their workplace. Andrew Cordner said his legal team have also shared the actions they have taken in furthering gender diversity with the wider business unit the legal team sits within (including the adoption of the principles of the Charter and engagement with their external law firms on these issues). He also noted that the team applies the principles of the Charter in a wider sense – for example, ensuring diversity of gender in external speaking panels.

Sharing ways of being

In-house lawyers have always generally tended to have a better work/life balance and more widely embrace flexible working than law firms. They also attract and seem to retain female lawyers – with around 62% of in-house lawyers being female. In-house legal teams can encourage, support and show firms how to work towards achieving balance and flexibility as the profession works toward a place where for all legal teams and organisations balance for all lawyers becomes the norm rather than the point of difference. Catherine Thompson says: “Regarding the Charter commitments around encouraging flexible working, our legal team and the wider business already embrace flexibility. It is well established that flexible working options are key to improving inclusion and diversity but there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to flexibility”.

For the Charter to embody change, the momentum of legal workplaces signing up for genuine reasons needs to continue so that the Charter covers as much of the legal profession – both private practice and in-house – as possible in order to assist in bringing about real and sustainable change with a view to achieving true gender equality in the legal community. It is clear that in-house lawyers can play a valuable role in driving culture change in this area. ILANZ applauds those in-house teams who have already signed up to the Charter and encourages others to do the same.

Caroline Sigley is Senior Legal Counsel for Bayer and an ILANZ committee member

If you would like any further information on the Charter and the process for signing up please refer to the Law Society website or email

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