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The new union for legal workers. What does it want?

05 July 2019 - By Craig Stephen

The team at Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union
From left to right: Honor Kerry, Owen Wilkinson, Hayley Coles, Harrison Cunningham, Bridget Sinclair, Eve Bain,
Laura Taylor, Morgan Evans, Allanah Colley. Not pictured: Josie Te Rata, Tess Upperton, Bridget McLay, Ollie Neas.

The Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) was launched in May in a blaze of publicity. New unions are rare, and the days of the closed shop and record levels of membership are long gone. Why do some members of the legal profession feel the need to form a union, and what are its objectives?

The ALWU’s interim President Hayley Coles and committee member Eve Bain met LawTalk before a Q and A session in Wellington a week after the union’s launch. Both are in their mid-20s, and their fellow committee members are also mostly in their 20s.

Ms Bain is a solicitor at Bell Gully where she has been for two years; Ms Coles was previously a solicitor at Simpson Grierson and LangtonHudsonButcher in Auckland, and is now working for the union full-time.

Neither has had serious workplace issues themselves but say they know plenty who have. Their focus is on improving the work environments of those who are generally starting out in their careers and who may already be contemplating getting out.

“It breaks my heart that people who are so passionate and intelligent – exactly the right kind of people who you want to be lawyers – are essentially forced out because they are not prepared to sacrifice everything for work,” says Eve Bain.

“We are seeing a system that allows only one type of person to be able to succeed and doesn’t necessarily acknowledge empathy, family and other commitments, it only recognises a work-only personality. So what needs to change is to allow different types of people to succeed in the profession so that we have a range of people at the top, not just one personality type.”

Solutions to long hours

Hayley Coles says while she understands that work can come in on an urgent basis, and therefore junior lawyers have to stay behind to carry it out, there are, nevertheless, solutions to having people stay behind into the night. She suggests firms hire more staff or compensate in other ways, eg, by paying the young lawyers for those extra hours and then giving them time off to recover.

“It’s what the union is about, it’s about making sure everyone in the profession is valued, whether that is junior lawyers, or secretaries and administrators, or the mum who has three children and wants to have a legal career but also wants to go home and spend time with her kids.

“If you take the average salary in a large corporate law firm, when someone works longer hours, say 50, 60 or even more hours a week, when you average it out that’s when you get quite close to minimum wage or even under. We believe that junior lawyers should be paid for each hour they work.”

She says that working extremely long hours – such as where people don’t finish till near midnight – is not good for productivity or mental health.

She hopes that there will also be a knock-on effect for the people lawyers serve.

“When the profession has improved we will be able to help our clients better; it means that we will be able to do a better job because we’re in a better mental health space and are able to practise as well as we can. We can then thrive in the profession, not just survive day-to-day.”

Misconceptions versus the reality

Eve Bain says there is a perception that lawyers are “rolling in cash” through television programmes and the media.

“They’re seen as being paid so much and it’s a glamorous profession; and that isn’t really the case, especially for junior lawyers, and I think part of what we want to do is highlight these misconceptions versus the reality. And I think sometimes clients often are unaware that the large amounts they pay a lawyer or a firm for time, how little is actually paid to the person doing that work. It might be shocking in some cases.”

She feels the attitude among some in the profession is that if junior lawyers put the hours in and show dedication to the cause, they will reap the benefits the more experience they gain. But she says that view doesn’t hold in the modern world.

“There is this perception that that it all pays off in the end, and that if a lawyer works all these crazy hours, with low pay in the beginning, by the time you make partner it all equals out in the end,” Ms Bain says.

“But the problem is that most people end up burnt out and leave the profession and so, I think, the overall goal of the union is to actually keep more great people in the profession. They come in to the profession due to a love of the law but end up looking elsewhere because they’re not being looked after or properly compensated.

“It’s not too much to ask to get paid for, say, five hours overtime after you are due to finish. It’s not that we don’t want to work hard or we are lazy, it’s just that we want to want to be compensated and that is a very reasonable request.”

Revelations and their role in union formation

The idea of the union came about through the harassment and bullying revelations of 2018 and its impact on the profession.

Hayley says the stories that came out in the media were the catalyst to act to get some change to support those who don’t otherwise have much power or a voice.

“We hope that the union will be a place to bring everyone together and have a collective voice that is stronger than if they were acting on their own. We’re looking at a lot of recommendations from the reports by Dame Margaret Bazley and Dame Silvia Cartwright, and we want to see all the recommendations introduced at all law firms.”

The current focus is on young lawyers in Auckland and Wellington, but as it develops the union expects to be able to represent workers across the profession and around the country. However, while the intention is to represent as many people as they can, they say there are clearly some people who require assistance more than others.

“I think we are very conscious that we are the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union, we are not the ‘junior lawyers and the top seven firms in Auckland and Wellington union’,” says Eve.

“That is where our origins are and where our first priorities will be but, as we develop our governance structure and grow, we will definitely want to have representation in smaller and medium-sized firms. So, while we’re not shy about our immediate priorities often focusing on junior lawyers and corporate firms, as a first step, they’re not going to be our only goal as a union either. One step at a time, we can’t bite off more than we chew.”

Both women made it clear that neither have experienced any major issues themselves at work and love the profession.

“I love my job and have the best boss and the best team,” says Eve. “But that is perhaps why I am involved with the union because I think that success and job satisfaction in the law is a real lottery. In my experience working at Bell Gully has been an amazing experience but that is quite clearly an exception rather than the rule.”

Hayley also had good personal experiences in the two firms she worked with, and it is a similar situation with some of the other founders of the ALWU.

“Most of us work reasonable hours but all of us have friends in the legal profession who don’t have that experience and we have friends and colleagues who are stuck in the office when we leave. We know several people who have had to leave the profession because of mental health crises and others who are at breaking point. People shouldn’t have to give up their dreams because the conditions are too difficult.”

The ALWU says it is prepared for pushback, particularly from conservative firms when it comes to negotiating on behalf of their members.

“We really hope that firms collaborate with us and come to the table and talk to us about what’s going to work for them and what we can make work between us,” says Hayley. “But we understand that we are asking for things that are different to how things have been for quite a long time, and know that can sometimes be hard for firms to deal with, and that there may be some resistance because of that.”

Unions of the past

Little is known about past legal unions but they are not new.

Lawfully Occupied, The Centennial History of the Otago District Law Society by MJ Cullen (1979), notes that in the mid-1930s, law clerks in Otago formed a local law clerks union. There is also evidence of a Dunedin Law Practitioner’s Employees Union.

In the early 1970s, a group of law clerks in Wellington joined the Clerical Workers Union which negotiated the Wellington Law Practitioners’ Employees award in 1973, says Labour historian Peter Franks. “An award was similar to today’s collective employment agreements. There was a similar development in Auckland which resulted in the revival of the Northern Legal Employees Union. Taranaki also had a legal employees union,” he says.

Over the following six years the Wellington award was extended to cover the Marlborough, Nelson, Westland, Canterbury, Otago and Southland industrial districts, Mr Franks adds.

“The awards went out of existence after the Employment Contracts Act became law in 1991 as did the clerical workers unions.”

In the October 1975 edition of LawTalk, it’s noted that the Otago Legal Practitioners Employees Union was wound up the year before and members had to join the Clerical Workers Union. One Dunedin law clerk refused to do so and was ordered by the Industrial Court to pay a $20 penalty for refusing to join the Otago branch of the bigger union.

In 2014, a Legal Workers Union of New Zealand was registered with the Companies Office but failed to get off the ground.

Otherwise, legal workers would have been involved in the New Zealand Clerical Workers Association, and its successor the New Zealand Clerical Workers Union, which folded in 1991.

Hayley Coles says she was told by someone pivotal in the 2014 attempt to form a union that it didn’t take off because the people involved either left the profession or moved overseas to further their career.

Asked about the possibility that the ALWU could suffer the same fate, she says there are some distinct organisational differences. “I don’t think they ever got as far as we have, so they didn’t fully launch and build up a membership base in the same ways as we have done, and now that we do have a membership base we don’t see any issue with it continuing as even if current interim executive members leave the profession or go overseas, elections will be held every year and new members can step in so the union isn’t reliant wholly on the founding members.”

Watershed moment

Considering the current environment where union membership is generally low and unions are less influential than in the past, Hayley Coles says there are plenty of success stories and some professions that have strong unions.

“Almost every doctor is a member of a union and we would like to see that replicated in the legal profession. It is going to take a long time, however, and we appreciate that it will take a lot of work to build up this union.”

Old attitudes are changing because of what has happened over the past two years or so, Eve Bain believes.

“We are at a watershed moment in the legal profession and the climate of the profession is ripe for a union. The response we have had is overwhelmingly supportive. Nearly every young lawyer that I have reached out to has been positive about it.”

Both say they’ve also had positive feedback from senior lawyers and the union’s website contains a number of supportive comments from senior lawyers such as Frances Joychild QC, Robyn Zwaan, academics Khylee Quince and Andrew Geddis, the Wellington Young Lawyers’ Committee and activists such as Olivia Wensley and Zoë Lawton.

The union has a givealittle page but from August when a membership fee will be set at its inaugural annual meeting, the union hopes to become self-sufficient with paid staff.

The New Zealand Law Society President Tiana Epati has said the ALWU will be a valuable voice, particularly for young, and newly admitted and employed lawyers throughout the law profession.

“I think the ALWU is a great initiative created by young lawyers for all employed lawyers. We welcome them to the table and we are ready to listen and work with them,” Ms Epati said on the union’s launch.

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Last updated on the 5th July 2019