New Zealand Law Society - Behind the scenes of the Standards Committees

Behind the scenes of the Standards Committees

LawTalk steps behind the scenes of the Law Society Standards Committees to share a sense of purpose and speak with the people who give their time and expertise to these committees.

In the 2022/23 year, the Law Society’s Lawyers Complaints Service (LCS) received approximately 950 complaints about lawyers, law firms and non-lawyer employees. Working with LCS staff as a key part of the complaints process are over 170 lawyers and lay members who volunteer hours of their time each month as members of Lawyers’ Standards Committees (Committees).

Independent of the Law Society, Committees are the decision makers of complaints (or own motion investigations). Their members tirelessly devote their time, expertise and experience to uphold the reputation and credibility of the profession.

The lawyer members’ understanding of the law, the pressures faced by lawyers and the application of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, and associated rules, in their own practice contribute to the decision-making process.

To shine a light on this typically unseen group of volunteers, LawTalk talks to three Committee lawyer members; Isaac Hikaka, Lynne Van and Marion Anderson-Ulu, and the author of the Standards Committees Practice Note and former Committee member, Paul Collins.

Accurate analysis of the facts blended with humanity

Paul Collins

An experienced lawyer in professional discipline and regulation within the legal profession, Paul Collins served on a Committee for the full nine-year tenure. Paul was instrumental in compiling the Practice Note on the functions and operations of Standards Committees.

“An informed perspective of Standards Committees and the work they do involves respect for the law, the institutions of justice, and the need to maintain professional standards and credibility with clients and other consumers of legal services.

“One of the key purposes of Standards Committees is to give credibility and confidence to the profession and the public.

“The Standards Committees achieve that by making decisions which reflect thorough and accurate analysis of the facts, the legal issues, and the applicable rules or principles of professional responsibility, all blended with common sense, balance, and humanity,” Paul says.

Although occasionally Committees can be seen as the interfering police officer, Paul thinks it is more a reflection of the discomfort or distress at being investigated.

“In my experience, people serving on Standards Committees are hard-working, committed, and motivated to serve the profession and the public.

“It will immensely assist in achieving the best outcome if the lawyer under investigation has able representation, ensuring objectivity and sound knowledge of the jurisdiction.”

An understanding from the other side

For family lawyer Marion Anderson-Ulu who joined a Committee in May last year, her personal experience has given her an understanding from the other side.

Marion Marion Anderson-Ulu

“I was working at a law firm at the time when a disgruntled client complained about the outcome and fees to my supervisor. Even though the complaint was resolved internally and ended amicably, going through it was stressful and daunting.

“However, I’ve since worked to not create any potential for complaints where possible. For example, if you find yourself in the heat of the moment or in an email war, pause and think first to ensure your conduct and communications do not bring the profession into disrepute. We are in a privileged situation, and we’ve got to take the responsibility seriously.”

Marion would like to encourage lawyers to take heart in the process and be reassured that Committees act neutrally and appreciate the pressure.

“The experience has given me compassion and understanding as a Standards Committee member. It’s likely that we’ve all been complained about, whether it’s done formally or informally at some point in our career.

“The Standards Committees are here to look at the situation from a neutral standpoint to understand if there is any real substance in the complaint. Ultimately, it’s a process, and if lawyers can respond to it promptly, it will make the process much easier and smoother.”

Common themes and a learning approach to complaints

A commercial litigator at Anthony Harper, Lynne Van is in her second term on a Committee. She echoes that the likelihood of a lawyer never receiving any form of complaint is pretty slim if they’ve practised long enough.

“As a lawyer, you automatically sign up to the complaint process as part of the job. Even if you think you’ve done nothing wrong, it’s important to respect the process and cooperate.

“Yes, it can be extremely difficult to navigate. Nevertheless, if you see everything as a learning process, it stops becoming a reason to be nervous about. You are then able to turn it into an opportunity to understand things through a different lens.”

Being on a Committee has brought Lynne a real revelation about the common themes in complaints.

“Often the complaints we see at the Standards Committee level can be grouped into three categories – service and carriage of the file that may involve the technical aspects and legal knowledge applied; conduct and behaviour of the practitioner (which may also include complaints about conflicts of interest and commonly, communication); and fees.

“On occasion, there may be elements in the complaint that may warrant further investigation, even if it’s not the initial focus, to ensure the assessment is fair, accurate and balanced.

“It has been eye-opening to see the range of complaints coming through. Inherently, you know what best practices look like, but it’s a constant reminder of the standards that we collectively uphold as a profession.”

A privilege justified by responsibility

Having been a Committee member for three years, civil litigator Isaac Hikaka says that Committees play a vital role in both the profession and society.

Isaac Isaac Hikaka

“The work of the Standards Committees is directly connected to how people view lawyers, and thus how people view the law, so people can have confidence in the rule of law and those who give it effect.

“Lawyers hold a very privileged position because we know how the system operates. One of the ways we can justify that privilege is by working to make sure the system works as well as it can.

“Unfortunately, you can’t avoid complaints; that is one of the realities of the legal profession. People needing legal services, especially for litigation matters, often have to deal with an unfamiliar system under stress. Sometimes the lawyer can bear the brunt of that as we provide the interface between the system and the people using that system.

“A lot of complaints stem from clients feeling a lack of communication or care. The more a lawyer can do to enhance transparency and make the client feel well supported, the better.”

Preparation and discussion behind the scenes

Committees meet regularly from fortnightly to six-weekly to consider complaints. Members are required to complete some reading and preparation prior to each meeting, sometimes with bundles of more than 1,000 pages to go through before a meeting.

For Isaac, it’s important that he reads all the pages, not just the ones he may have been assigned to take the lead on, so he’s able to have input on all matters. “I don’t take short cuts. Complaints can have a significant impact on both a lawyer’s practice and the complainant. They both deserve me reading the whole file.”

“Sometimes what appears to be really concerning on the initial reading of the complaint turns out not to be as concerning in full context, but it can also work the other way,” Isaac adds. “The discussion process is collegial and robust. Standards Committee members tend to independently come to the same or similar views about matters. I think that speaks to the shared values and belief in the rules of professional conduct and the standards of the profession.”

It’s not unusual that a discussion can develop into debate, but the different views are always discussed collectively. The togetherness in the working process has given Marion comfort in knowing that she’s not on her own.

Photo of Lynne Van Lynne Van

“If there are any bumps in the meeting, we massage it out by discussion collectively. You are not judged when raising opposing views,” Marion says. “No one is an island, and nothing is solely rested on your shoulder. There is a strong sense of togetherness in our collaboration.”

The involvement of lay members is also invaluable in bridging the gaps between both worlds. Each Committee comprises up to seven lawyer members and two lay members from the public with good standing in the community.

Lynne has found lay members’ contribution very useful, “Through lay members’ perspectives, we are able to better understand how the public and consumers might perceive things which sometimes can be the missing piece in the picture.”

Rewarding and stimulating

Despite the time commitment, it’s unanimously agreed that the work of Committees is incredibly rewarding and stimulating.

“Being on the Committee exposes you to how the law operates in a vast range of areas that you might not otherwise encounter. The more you can see the law operating, the more tools you have in your toolbox that you can apply to your own practice to provide advice to your own clients"

Paul recalls, “One of the most rewarding aspects of working on a Standards Committee was the breadth of subject matter, both in terms of legal areas but also the infinitely interesting field of human behaviour. Unless the Standards Committee is designated to a particular area of the law, or category of complaint, you can expect to encounter anything that the law covers – every aspect of human and institutional endeavour.”

The ability to give back to the profession and the people it serves has been a driving force for Isaac, Lynne and Marion. While volunteering may appear to only benefit others on the surface, it also has a positive influence on your professional development and practice in general.

"Being on the Committee exposes you to how the law operates in a vast range of areas that you might not otherwise encounter. The more you can see the law operating, the more tools you have in your toolbox that you can apply to your own practice to provide advice to your own clients” Isaac says.

Prior to Lynne’s involvement with the Committee, she was appointed as a cost assessor to assist a Committee in looking into a complaint on fees. It was a one-off voluntary role, but it gave her a glimpse of the nature of work. Practising in a large law firm, Lynne would highly recommend senior associates who are looking to step up in their career to not shy away from putting themselves forward. “Joining a Standards Committee is a great way to understand the realities of business practice and how to be a better lawyer.”

As a relatively new Committee member, Marion understands that putting yourself out may not be easy at first but one thing she knows for sure, “I haven’t regretted it, and actually I’ve enjoyed being part of it.” Marion welcomes the opportunities to chat about the work of the Committees with anyone who may be interested.

Joining a Standards Committee

There are 22 Committees including two Early Resolution Service Committees across the country that work hard for the preservation and advancement of the profession. The Early Resolution Service Committees manage complaints which are unlikely to require a formal disciplinary response.

The Law Society advertises vacancies when they become available. Under r 15(1) of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Complaints Service and Standards Committees) Regulations, a potential lawyer candidate needs to have a current practising certificate and have practised for a period (or periods) aggregating five years or more.

An essential facet of the selection process is making sure that the Committees are dynamic and encompass diversity of thinking, practice areas, and backgrounds.

“There is a real danger of narrow or ill-informed thinking if the entire Committee comes from the same practice area and cultural profile, not reflecting the community from which the issues are drawn.

“Serving on a Standards Committee is a way any reasonably experienced lawyer can contribute to the quality and standing of the profession. If a problem is perceived in this area, joining a Standards Committee makes you a part of the solution.”

If you’d like to express interest in being a Committee member or would like to know more about how you can get involved, please email