find the latest legal job
Corporate Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Highly-respected, innovative and entrepreneurial Not-for-Profit · Competency based Board
View details
Chief Counsel and Company Secretary
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: Newcastle, Maitland & Hunter NSW
· Dynamic, high growth organisation · ASX listed market leader
View details
In-house Projects Lawyer | Renewables / Solar | 2-5 Years PQE
Category: Generalists - In House | Location: All Australia
· Help design the future · NASDAQ Listed
View details
Insurance Lawyer (3-5 PAE)
Category: Insurance and Superannuation Law | Location: Brisbane CBD & Inner Suburbs Brisbane QLD
· Dynamic organisation ·
View details
Legal Counsel
Category: Corporate and Commercial Law | Location: North Sydney NSW 2060
· 18 month fixed term contract · 3-5 years PQE with TMT exposure
View details
Putting people first

Putting people first

The profession was rocked by a major report in 2014 that showed discrimination, bullying and harassment is rife in the profession. Justin Whealing says that in 2015, how we treat each other will be how the profession is judged.

There is nothing that should concern senior members of the profession more than how we treat each other and, on that score there is some work to do, and then some.

One of my most important briefs as the editor of Lawyers Weekly is to express the concerns of our readers and, on occasions, fight battles on their behalf. Top of that list is diversity, or the lack thereof, and depression.

The release of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) by the Law Council of Australia in March was a watershed moment for the profession.

The statistics from the NARS Report are not adequately described as sobering, they are shocking.

The report analysed responses from 3801 practising lawyers, 84 lawyers who had left the profession and 75 individuals who have completed a law qualification but have not practised law. Around 70 per cent of the survey respondents were women.

Half of all women claimed to have experienced discrimination due to their gender, compared to just over 10 per cent of men.

One in four women said they were discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.

The NARS found that 50 per cent of women and one in three men said they had been bullied or intimidated in the workplace, with the study finding these figures could be linked to the confrontational nature of legal practice.

Such statistics shame the legal profession and undermine the expertise and integrity of all its members.

Why would any client want to pay thousands of dollars to a law firm for advice on employment law matters, such as bullying and harassment, or seek guidance on how to frame occupational health & safety policies when doubt is cast as to the safety, culture and types of behaviours allowed to exist in law firms?

Law firms and all legal bodies should be setting the example as to what a modern day professional services or white-collar workplace should look like.

What the NARS demonstrated is what we already know; that the law allows objectionable behaviours to exist for as long as a kill or get killed culture is allowed to flourish.

The NARS showed that the profession is adept at quantifying the monetary value of work

When you ignore your own, why should you be trusted to dole out advice to others?

“We may have had our eye off the ball a little and have not done enough to engender a culture where those sorts of things are absolutely unacceptable,” said one of the architects of the NARS, Fiona McLeod SC, a former president of the Victorian Bar, current vice-president of the Australian Bar Association and one of the profession’s leading professional and moral figureheads when talking to Lawyers Weekly in March.

“We have to communicate an absolute zero tolerance for bullying and harassment.”

So, where to from here?

How do we address such a systematic failure to members of the profession?

Fiona has a few ideas.

In providing the keynote address at the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards in October, she made the following point, which bears repeating, on how we can change the profession so its members are happier.

“We need clear guidelines, laws, conduct rules and appropriate supports and processes.  We need to be accountable, with rigorous institutional supports, education and outside assistance.”

The where to from here after NARS is a very important question.

In fact, it is the most important question confronting the profession this year.

Strong leadership from law firm heads, senior partners, silks and general counsels are needed to eliminate such behaviours.

One of the leading senior male figures behind the NARS, Baker & McKenzie Australia managing partner Chris Freeland, has initiated roundtable discussions with other large-law managing partners about what can be done to help women stay in the profession longer, and to ensure all its members, regardless of gender, feel they can arrive at a workplace where experiences of bullying, discrimination and harassment are not tolerated.

The days of having a culture where colleagues ‘look the other way and put up with it’ because he or she is ‘just like that’, ‘has an enormous client list’ or ‘gets results’ will not wash in the modern environment.

The ends never, ever justify the means.

With a report such as the NARS detailing unacceptably high levels of bullying, harassment and objectionable behaviour, is it any wonder the legal sector has such high rates of depression amongst its members?

 

Timing is everything

In delivering the annual Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation annual lecture in October, High Court Justice Virginia Bell made the point that, in her view, depression is linked to timesheets.

Justice Bell told attendees at the lecture that while there is a general acceptance that time-billing imposes unrealistic deadlines and unreasonable demands, calls to adopt alternatives are falling on deaf ears.

She described billable hour targets as a “blunt” management tool that rewards inefficiency with higher remuneration.

Lawyers Weekly concurs with the views of Justice Bell.

It is my strong contention that there is a link between timesheets, legal stress, bad behaviour and the high rate of depression amongst lawyers.

I realise that you can’t prove this with statistics, and such an assertion is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

But talk to lawyers, senior and junior.

I have heard too many stories about the pressures of timesheet- driven measurements of performance and billable hour targets.

I personally feel that this system of billing is not only unfair to clients that pay big bucks to firms, but it is also unfair to junior lawyers whose success or otherwise is so highly measured against how they measure up against the clock.

As one lawyer who has now left the profession commented in the NARS: “The six minute units and the relentlessness of time recording and billing and meeting the budget, I’m just over it”.

She is not alone, and more good people will leave the profession while we still attach someone’s worth to someone’s time.

 

This is an edited extract from a presentation  Lawyers Weekly editorJustin Whealing gave to InfoTrack in December 2014.

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

The legal budget breakdown 2017

Putting people first
lawyersweekly logo
Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network
more from lawyers weekly
LCA president Fiona McLeod SC
Aug 17 2017
Where social fault lines meet the justice gap in Aus
After just returning from a tour of the Northern Territory, LCA president Fiona McLeod SC speaks wit...
Marriage equality flag
Aug 17 2017
ALHR backs High Court challenge to marriage equality postal vote
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) has voiced its support for a constitutional challenge to ...
Give advice
Aug 17 2017
A-G issues advice on judiciary’s public presence
Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis QC has offered his advice on the public presence of jud...
APPOINTMENTS
Allens managing partner Richard Spurio, image courtesy Allens' website
Jun 21 2017
Promo season at Allens
A group of lawyers at Allens have received promotions across its PNG and Australian offices. ...
May 11 2017
Partner exits for in-house role
A Victorian lawyer has left the partnership of a national firm to start a new gig with state governm...
Esteban Gomez
May 11 2017
National firm recruits ‘major asset’
A national law firm has announced it has appointed a new corporate partner who brings over 15 years'...
opinion
Nicole Rich
May 16 2017
Access to justice for young transgender Australians
Reform is looming for the process that young transgender Australians and their families must current...
Geoff Roberson
May 11 2017
The lighter side of the law: when law and comedy collide
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much that is amusing about the law, writes Geoff Rober...
Help
May 10 2017
Advocate’s immunity – without fear or without favour but not both
On 29 March 2017, the High Court handed down its decision in David Kendirjian v Eugene Lepore & ...