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A law student perspective: how the future should look

10 May 2018 - By Nick Butcher

“A lot of law firms want to put our names on them as a student, but we also need to feel that we can put our names on them as a firm.”

2018 has so far seen the legal profession saturated in allegations of sexual harassment, assault and bullying occurring in some legal workplaces.

Students during a class
Photo: Morton Siebuhr

It has resulted in Russell McVeagh, the firm at the centre of the first claims in February, committing to an external review of its culture and policies as they relate to sexual harassment.

The allegations related to sexual harassment and assault complaints made by some final year Victoria University law students who worked on that firm’s summer clerk programme in 2015/16.

The fallout has led to former lawyers coming forward with their experiences, and other law firms scrutinised, showing that harassment and bullying have been a dark underbelly of the profession for a long time, and not unique to just one workplace.

In March hundreds of students from Victoria University’s Faculty of Law with other supporting students took their anger to the streets of the capital to a focal point at Wellington’s Lambton Quay, Midland Park.

It was aptly named the ‘March on Midland’. The Wellington office of Russell McVeagh is on the 24th floor of the high rise building overlooking the park.

The demonstration included banners with words such as ‘Zero Tolerance’, ‘#US TOO’ and one directed at the regulator which said ‘Law Society Do Your Job’, which could not be ignored.

Their message, delivered under the low sun of a stunning autumn day, was how the future of the legal profession should be. It could not have been any clearer. No one was being left out of this legal equation.

The view from law school

LawTalk sat down with three Victoria University law students who will graduate at the end of this year. They’re all eager to practise law, despite the profession being embroiled in a public image crisis.

They discussed the current sexual harassment allegations atmosphere of the legal profession, and also equality in the workplace for women and men and whether the Law Society’s recently-launched Gender Equality Charter could fix that separate issue.

Bethany Paterson, Fletcher Boswell and Indiana Shewen are all on the cusp of completing their legal studies. They’re young, ambitious and yet despite sexual harassment issues blighting the legal profession, they’re confident that things will come right.

The students say they were all aware of the stories that were encircling Russell McVeagh’s summer clerk programme of two years ago, well before they were revealed by the news media.

The sexual harassment allegations, including the testimony of other former female lawyers that has come out in the media, made it sound almost like new lawyers could be heading into a potential combat zone, given the description of some workplace cultures.

“Most people that have studied law to be lawyers still want to go into the profession. There were already a lot of rumours about what has come out. Now we can start addressing it and ripping out the root of the problem and new law students who’ll graduate in five years’ time should feel confident that things will be different,” says Indiana Shewen.

“I think what has come out through the media has brought a lot more attention to the issues but it’s not material that a lot of people have not already been unaware of. What is good is the support we are getting from all facets of New Zealand society, not just in the legal profession. People are still optimistic. There’s lots of reasons to be optimistic in terms of where the culture is moving, because law firms are having the conversation as the issues are at the forefront of people’s minds,” says Fletcher Boswell.

“But it has taken us two years to get this point at all and start this conversation. Some of these issues were raised with the Law Society before now, but it is great that we can have an open and honest discussion about it now,” says Bethany Paterson.

Is all of the work being done to address these issues enough?

LawTalk asked the law students what their expectations were of the Law Society’s regulatory working group. This included such as whether the Chair, Dame Silvia Cartwright, might go so far as to suggest the regulatory framework may need to be reviewed to enable better reporting of sexual harassment and related behaviour.

“I think we should be looking at big changes. With an issue where we are talking about sexual assault, for example, it justifies a response in proportion. Perhaps greater enforcement of the rules that are already in place,” Ms Paterson says.

Mr Boswell says while the appropriate laws need to be in place, they also need to be followed.

“It’s really important that if these incidents occur in the workplace, there is a positive obligation on law firms, partners and other senior members of the profession to come forward to the Law Society with these issues. It’s a shared responsibility between the Law Society and the firm, because once the Law Society is aware of it, they have an obligation to protect the more vulnerable members of the profession,” he says.

When talking about a cultural change in the law profession, dimming down that lit-up perception of working hard and playing hard is surely part of the solution?

The students say that just because some more senior members of a law firm may not have taken part in some of the social activities where questionable behaviour occurred, turning a blind eye to rumours of what other law firm colleagues may have been involved in, isn’t an acceptable reaction.

“That’s all part of the culture change that we’re talking about. When you look at all the issues, it would be easy to say, ‘changing a culture, how the hell do you achieve that?’ It’s about taking it piece by piece, such as what should the bystanders be doing, the partners, and what should the Law Society be doing? Knowing what everyone’s obligations are,” says Bethany Paterson.

Indiana Shewen says law students need to be aware of what to expect from a law firm they might do some work at.

“From a student’s perspective, we have to ensure that they will be treated with respect and what does that look like? We should be able to have an open conversation with law firms about our expectations, that would be a good starting point,” she says.

Searching for that first job in law isn’t far away for these students. But what should you be looking for? Is it a position in one of the most high profile law firms or the lesser known businesses?

Does it come down to your definition of success?

“For me, it’s a balance between finding a firm that matches your interests and intellectually challenges you. It should also match your values, the culture you want to be going into and the sort of people you want to be working with,” Ms Paterson says.

It was a mix of those considerations that led to Indiana Shewen taking on a summer clerk position at Kahui Legal in Wellington.

“I knew I wanted to work with Māori law but it was also about the people and the support networks. But looking at the student body, generally there is this bizarre measure of success in terms of working at big firms. Once you get to your fifth year at university, you realise that is less of a priority and move more towards a value based decision,” she says.

Finding a firm with both the right culture and intellectual stimulation

Fletcher Boswell is still to decide where his future in law will be. He had the opportunity to work in corporate finance during the summer, where he enjoyed utilising his law skills.

He says a lot of people are looking for what can be ‘two conflicting forces’, such as finding a good culture with values that you can relate to and at the same time intellectual stimulation at the firm.

“But those two things are not mutually exclusive. I think a firm that students want to work at is one that is able to foster a culture which allows employees to excel and feel challenged in, regardless of what area of law they want to practise in.

“I think the situation the law profession is dealing with is a great opportunity for a lot of firms, even those that aren’t implicated in any of these incidents to look at their processes and asking questions as to how they can better deal with these sorts of incidents better and how can we make sure our employees are all safe,” he says.

LawTalk asked the students to picture themselves as a law graduate looking for that first job and having gained that vital interview, where they are also invited to ask their potential employer questions.

Do you ask what sort of policies the firm has that address sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace?

“An interview situation is a social setting that is mandated by politeness and it would still come across as perhaps rude or presumptuous by saying something as you’re questioning the integrity of staff. It’s as if you’re pre-empting that there might be a risk at that firm which questions their culture and integrity. The obligation should not be on the student to ask these questions,” Bethany Paterson says.

Fletcher Boswell agrees.

“I think organisations such as the student association and the Law Students Society should be taking leadership. I don’t think the obligation should be on students to ask this of a potential employer. We need to be having those conversations and have the information provided to students before the interview process. It’s a weight that needs to be taken off the students' shoulders,” Mr Boswell says.

Last month LawTalk featured a large story about changing the culture of the profession which included a thorough look at whether workplaces where law is practised had current policies that manage sexual harassment and bullying complaints. Many did have policies but many also didn’t and one response that still resonates is that policies are only as good as the culture that nurtures them.

“If there is a policy, it needs to be one that is used and one that all employees know about. You need to know what your rights are, how you can be expected to be treated if you are a victim of harassment, and if you are a perpetrator, you should know what the consequences of your behaviour is and that these consequences will happen,” Ms Paterson says.

The students all say the policies are important but too often provide an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff as opposed to providing a fence at the top to stop the fall from occurring in the first place.

But even with clear policies in place, there’s still no guarantee that everything will be plain sailing at any firm or workplace.

Ms Paterson says there are other strategies that graduating law students can undertake so to get a better idea of the supposed culture at a workplace.

“As a practical step, they could ask people who work at a firm what it’s like to do so there. Just accepting that the business has a policy or reading great things about a firm on their website won’t necessarily answer all of your questions,” she says.

A lawyer whose story has been told through the media, Olivia Wensley, left the law after suffering what she described as years of sexual innuendos and inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues.

The Victoria University students say that despite the current problems that are damaging the reputation of the profession, they’ve not heard of anyone in the final year of their degree deciding to do something else rather than practise law.

“I’m reminded of what employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg said in her speech at the March on Midland.

“She encouraged all law students to keep going and to not let this take away their passion to work in the legal profession,” says Indiana Shewen.

Equality, the other big issue affecting the legal profession

While sexual harassment and bullying are major issues being tackled by the law profession, it would be unwise to divert attention from another problem, equality in the workplace.

The primary purpose of the Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter, which was released to the profession on 12 April, is to improve the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession.

It’s a fact that despite women making up over half of the 13,000-plus practising lawyers in the country, the numbers of women in positions of power such as partners, directors or Queen’s Counsel do not reflect that achievement at all.

Sixty percent of all law school graduates across the country are women.

So what do these law students make of the Gender Equality Charter and is it something they would hope to see as part of a range of policies law firms might employ?

“Coming from a student perspective, the majority of law students are women, and yet if you look at these issues, it’s very much a glass ceiling for women. It would be great to have structures like this [the charter] in place. It’s about moving away from an old way of thinking, even moving away from calling the profession, the legal fraternity. I think we are lucky to have a woman Prime Minister who is pregnant, so we are able to be idealistic in relation to what we want our work environment to be like,” says Indiana Shewen.

“I think having some kind of framework is really important for any organisation when they’re trying to improve the processes they have in place. I think if firms are enthusiastic about signing up to that sort of framework, it’s really positive from an employee’s point of view,” Mr Boswell says.

“Women aren’t advancing through merit at the same rate as men. It’s not a matter of they (women) don’t have merit so we’ll advance them preferentially. It’s obvious that there has been a subconscious bias towards men which is evident from the percentages we see in relation to the higher ranks of the legal profession. It’s crazy to contemplate that women don’t make up 50% of partnerships in law firms,” says Bethany Paterson.

What more could be done to bring about equality?

Fletcher Boswell says their generation is comfortable speaking out and it will inevitably lead to significant changes in the power structure throughout the law profession.

“They’re much more confident and with the accessibility of the media, that makes it easier to raise awareness around these issues, so we are fortunate in that sense. But it’s an intergenerational issue, so when you have conversations with different people about how they see the roots of the problem, it changes based on what decade you are speaking to. The most important thing we can do from our perspective is to keep engaging people in these conversations,” he says.

Ms Shewen says the Gender Equality Charter empowers women to succeed.

“For example with equal pay and pay audits. They (women) should be able to talk to the law firm partners. It puts you in a position to hold firms accountable by saying, you’re a signatory to the Gender Equality Charter, why aren’t you meeting this commitment? Students are more inclined to bring these issues up and over time, that will result in changes throughout the profession,” she says.

Nick Butcher spoke with the Victoria University students for a podcast that you can listen to here.

Last updated on the 10th May 2018