New Zealand Law Society - Information for employers

Information for employers

It is in the interest of all lawyers to promote a safe, healthy, respectful and fair legal work environment. Bullying and harassment in the workplace is a risk to health and safety. It can cause serious problems for legal workplaces, including:

  • Low morale,
  • High staff turnover,
  • An inability to attract or retain good staff,
  • Increased sick leave,
  • Low productivity and poor performance,
  • Damage to an organisation’s reputation and brand,
  • Potential professional complaints and disciplinary action through the Lawyers Complaints Service, and
  • The financial consequences of personal grievances and employment disputes.


Lawyers who are responsible for law practices must provide a safe environment for all clients, employees and people the law practice engages with. A definition of law practice includes an individual lawyer practising on their own account. This means that sole practitioners and barristers are included.

There are a number of organisations that have good sample polices and templates that you may wish to adapt for your law practice.

Employment New Zealand is also a good place to start when considering an appropriate policy in this area. This resource has information on bullying and harassment, what a model policy should include, dealing with inappropriate behaviour formally and informally, how to make a formal complaint, how to respond to a complaint and possible actions for employers to take after a complaint has been made.

WorkSafe has a bullying prevention toolbox with useful templates and documents and guidance that is useful for both small and large organisations.

The Human Rights Commission has more comprehensive information on bullying and harassment including a kit training kit for conducting workplace bullying prevention training. This site also includes a comprehensive model workplace bullying policy.

Policies and systems to prevent and protect all persons from prohibited behaviour should include:

  1. A clear statement that bullying, discrimination, harassment, racial harassment, sexual harassment or violence is not accepted by the practice at any level; and that all clients, employees, and other people the law practice engages with can expect to be treated with respect.

This is something that could be included in your Terms of Engagement/Information for Clients brochure, on your website, included in internal policies or induction material for new staff. Worksafe have template policies on their website that you may wish to consider adapting for the needs of your law practice.

  1. A clear and simple reporting process (consultation with employees on this aspect will help to make an effective policy for your practice).
  2. Avenues of support for people affected by prohibited behaviour.

These could be internal, for example a case manager or external, such as access to counselling, employee assistance programmes or provision of information about other sources of support.

  1. Investigation of complaints.

Under rule 11.5.1, the client complaints procedure for a sole practitioner or barrister may include referring the complaint to an independent lawyer for consideration.

  1. Confidentiality and privacy (which cannot operate to exclude reporting requirements to the Law Society).

Your reporting process should respect everyone’s rights to privacy and confidentiality, but this does not override the law practice’s obligation to report to the Law Society about written warnings or dismissals due to prohibited behaviour.

  1. Ensuring the active support of senior lawyers and managers, including modelling respectful behaviours themselves.

Communicate your policy clearly with staff and provide reminders. Ensure your staff are aware of the various avenues for help if they are feeling stressed or under pressure, so that they can continue to bring their best selves to work.


Robust policies are important but are not enough. Leaders in legal workplaces need to ensure that all employees understand the policy and guidelines and that they are being implemented. It is important that staff know what constitutes harassment and bullying. It may seem obvious but it will not always be clear to everyone in the practice. Good training with real examples is important to ensure there is a clear understanding of what is unacceptable behaviour. This is particularly important when trying to alter a “just joking” culture within an organisation. Humour can sometimes be used to excuse behaviour that others find offensive and inappropriate, which can be a form of bullying or harassment.

It is important that leaders in a legal workplaces, such as partners, lead by example. Employees look to leaders to set the firm’s culture. A healthy culture enables people to speak out, not just victims but witnesses. All members of the legal workplace should receive harassment and bullying training from partners and general managers through to administrative staff.

Calling out behaviour – why you should

Calling out inappropriate behaviour is important in changing the culture of a legal workplace. When the bully or harasser is someone senior to you, a mentor, a fellow partner or a senior manager this can make it very difficult to address. You may be concerned that it will have a negative impact on your career or the close relationships or networks you have formed. However, putting up with bullying is just as likely to be bad for workplace enjoyment and your career.

Lawyers and legal staff joining a legal workplace or starting out in their career are likely to be daunted and uncomfortable speaking out about inappropriate behaviour. This means that it is important that senior lawyers, as leaders in our profession, make a concerted effort in this area. When you see bullying, harassment or abuse, call it out, do not be a bystander. Tell the perpetrators that it is not appropriate. More importantly, model appropriate behaviour yourself. It is important that young lawyers or those thinking of studying law know that they are joining a profession with a culture based around collegiality, support and respect.

Not speaking up can lead to a huge cost to the organisation – not just from a legal employment and personal grievance perspective. It can mean a failure to attract and retain good staff and significantly damage the organisation’s brand leading to a potential loss of business.

Alcohol in the workplace

Alcohol is a risk factor and a common contributor to unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. Grievances and disciplinary matters are frequently tied in some way to alcohol use. Employers and managers have a health and safety duty when it comes to alcohol in work environments.

We know that the law can be a stressful profession and it is common for alcohol to be used as a stress-relief. The heavy consumption of alcohol in the legal profession has previously been a part of the culture. Traditionally, long working hours and an expectation of high work standards has meant that often the Friday night drink, work completion celebration or client networking events involve a wind down from a busy workload. The profession is moving away from a culture that encourages heavy drinking at events.

All employers who serve alcohol need to ensure they have policies around alcohol consumption at work-related events. It is important to consider ways to allow all staff to continue to safely enjoy workplace social and work events where alcohol is available.

Take the time to consider the culture of your workplace. Emphasise to all staff that drinking to excess is unacceptable during work events. It is particularly important that young people joining the workplace are given information about alcohol usage guidance and acceptable conduct.

Information and resources on managing alcohol in the workplace is available on the Health Promotion Agency’s website on alcohol.