Legal Workplace Environment Survey figures show the prevalence of sexual harassment among lawyers has decreased in the five years since the Law Society’s first workplace survey of lawyers.
The results of the 2023 survey also show that lawyers who have been sexually harassed in the last five years are much less likely to feel the behaviour was ‘common’ in their workplace at the time of the harassment – from 23 per cent in 2018, to 12 per cent in 2023.
Further, over the last five years the proportion of lawyers who have encountered sexual harassment, as a bystander, has dropped 9 percentage points, to 19 per cent.
Law Society Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch said the results were a step in the right direction, but that reluctance to report was still an ongoing issue.
“These survey results provide important insights into the key issue of workplace safety and culture. It is encouraging to see some signs of progress, although the survey shows there’s still a lot more work to do,” she said.
The prevalence of sexual harassment among all lawyers has decreased, applying both the sexual harassment definition in the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 (the Rules) (10 percent to 7 per cent) and a behavioural definition (27 per cent to 22 per cent).
Ms Rusbatch said that while the only acceptable number for incidents of sexual harassment is zero, she was optimistic that the drop in incidents of sexual harassment provided further signs that the profession was changing for the better.
“It shows that recent high-profile cases, changes to professional standards rules and clear messaging about zero tolerance of sexual harassment are making a difference.”
“However, there is still a reluctance to seek support and speak up about unacceptable behaviour for fear of the consequences or a distrust in the process. It’s those barriers we want to break down, and to see lawyers raising these issues with their employers and the Law Society.”
General workplace wellbeing, bullying and employment discrimination, were other key areas examined by the survey.
Three quarters of the legal community have a great deal of job satisfaction. Ms Rusbatch said this was not surprising.
“Many lawyers say that they entered the legal profession because they want to help people,” she said.
Job stressors have reduced since 2018; however, lawyers are less likely to feel that their stress is appropriately managed in 2023.
“We know that some areas of legal work such as criminal law and family law are under immense workload pressure,” said Ms Rusbatch.
“It is also concerning to see that work-life balance is lowest among Pacific people working in the legal community.”
Bullying remains a common experience in the legal community. Half of respondents have experienced bullying in a legal setting in their lifetime. However, the number of lawyers experiencing bullying in the last six months using the Rules definition, has decreased from 21 per cent in 2018 to 17 per cent in 2023.
“It is good to see some shifts in the level of bullying being experienced in the legal community and that physically intimidating behaviour and some person-related bullying behaviours have declined since 2018. However, the survey shows that bullying needs to be a continued focus for the profession,” said Ms Rusbatch.
Eleven per cent of the legal community has experienced some form of employment discrimination in the last five years. Gender, age and ethnicity dominate this area, with a disproportionately high representation amongst Pacific peoples.
“The questions on employment discrimination were new in the 2023 survey, as this is an area that the Law Society wants to understand,” Ms Rusbatch said. “The most common effects relate to damaged career prospects and harm to mental wellbeing.”
“It is important that the profession provides a safe and inclusive environment, and that the diversity of the profession reflects the community it is serving.”
What is the Law Society doing?
The Law Society is committed to eliminating the culture of bullying, harassment and discrimination which exists in some parts of the legal profession.
“We don’t want any of our lawyers being harassed, bullied or discriminated against,” Ms Rusbatch said.
Acknowledging the issues was one of the factors that triggered changes to the Rules in 2021, and the Independent Review.
“We recognised that in many areas – particularly complaints – the Law Society has been hampered by our legislative framework. The Law Society commissioned the Review, and we welcomed its findings.”
The Law Society has provided its response to the Minister of Justice, so that it can be considered for the Government’s legislative agenda.
“We have made progress in the regulatory area. There is a new regulatory strategy in place and the Rules relating to unacceptable behaviour have been comprehensively reformed. Sexual harassment has clearly been found to be misconduct by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal,” she said.
“The Law Society is committed to ensuring that all lawyers are treated with respect, courtesy and fairness and maintain the standards expected of the profession at all times”
“As the kaitiaki of the legal profession, we recognised that there have been issues, and that as a regulator and representative body we needed to act. The Law Society is committed to ensuring that all lawyers are treated with respect, courtesy and fairness and maintain the standards expected of the profession at all times.”
Ms Rusbatch said there was no end to this work and that the responsibilities for the legal profession were ongoing.
The Law Society is working hard to provide representative services to its members especially in the area of lawyer wellbeing.
“As a regulator, we’re aware that if left unaddressed, poor wellbeing can flow into disciplinary issues,” Ms Rusbatch said. “We’d prefer to prevent those outcomes, and I encourage lawyers to take advantage of the Law Society’s Practising Well initiatives.”
The National Friends Panel is made up of lawyers who can be contacted on a confidential basis with questions or concerns relating to practice issues. Additionally, several lawyers are also available to discuss sensitive matters such as workplace harassment.
The Law Society has a dedicated LawCare 0800 phone line (0800 0800 28) which is a confidential point of contact for lawyers and law firm employees who have experienced, witnessed, or been affected by sexual assault, sexual harassment, or other unacceptable behaviour.
Unacceptable behaviour can be reported to 0800 261 801, or on the ‘Report a lawyer’ website page. Lawyers can also raise a concern and have a Professional Standards Officer call them back. The Law Society has a specialist team in the Lawyers Complaints Service that handles sensitive matters and can discuss these matters with lawyers on a confidential basis.
The Law Society has published ‘Guidance on professional standards and reporting obligations.’ This guidance is intended to help lawyers to understand their obligations, and to support and empower people who are affected by unacceptable behaviour. The guidance can be found on the Law Society’s website.
About the survey
The 2023 Kantar Public and New Zealand Law Society Legal Workplace Environment Survey was commissioned by the Law Society in a commercial partnership with data insights company, Kantar Public. The 2023 survey follows up on the 2018 Legal Workplace Environment Survey to establish any behavioural changes in the legal workplace environment since then.
The 2018 survey followed accusations of sexual harassment at some law firm events and the launch of the #metoo movement. The Law Society commissioned Kantar Public to undertake the survey to ascertain the degree to which lawyers were experiencing this type of behaviour in workplaces across the country. The action points that came from the 2018 survey resulted in the new designated lawyer obligations, and a clarified set of behaviour expectations that are now included in the Rules.
Definitions and updates on the 2018 survey
It should be noted that the survey uses both the Rules definitions and behavioural definitions for sexual harassment and bullying. The survey uses the Employment New Zealand definition for employment discrimination. The 2018 survey used the Human Rights Commission definition for sexual harassment and the Employment New Zealand definition for bullying as this conduct was not specifically defined in the RCCC at the time. These are identified with the relevant numerical results and explained in the summary document.
The 2023 questionnaire was largely the same as the 2018 questionnaire to allow for direct comparability of results. The questions about employment discrimination were new in the 2023 survey and provide a benchmark for comparison of future surveys. Non-lawyers were not surveyed in 2018.
Survey process and response rate
Potential respondents comprising 15,573 practising certificate holders and 614 non-lawyers, were each provided a unique link to participate in the survey. The overall response rate to the survey was 15 per cent. The total sample size was 2,355 – this comprised 1,992 lawyers and 363 non-lawyers who completed the survey.
The 2023 survey showed a shift in the gender profile of respondents from 49.7 per cent male, 49.9 per cent female and 0.4 per cent gender diverse in 2018 to 45 per cent male, 54 per cent female and 1 per cent other gender. These are proportionally representative of the populations of lawyers at the times of both surveys. Of the non-lawyers surveyed, they represented 88 per cent female and 12 per cent male.
View more information, including the full report here