Of the 14,000-odd practising lawyers in New Zealand, 875 have joined the Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union, which suggests that, despite popular belief, lawyers are not necessarily the best at upholding their own employment rights.
Almost two years since its inception and with a new cohort of faces on the executive, let's see what has been happening, and what is to come.
In the past year, the union produced and commenced reports relating to employment information for lawyers and support staff; began a minimum wage and living wage campaign - which were both stalled as a result of Covid-19; engaged with regulators and firms; and it continues to promise to prioritise collective bargaining.
Covid-19 exacerbated work issues
Notably, alert level 4 "required legal workers to adjust to working from home and, for many, accept a reduction in their salaries - without necessarily receiving a corresponding reduction in their hours of work" former co-presidents Morgan Evans and Hayley Coles stated in their AGM address.
Covid-19's impact became more profound as time went on, with an increasing number of legal workers dealing with redundancies and other employment issues in their workplaces, they said, which I find interesting seeing as firms have gone on record saying quite the contrary in previous columns. Stay tuned for more on this topic, next week.
Of the 40 firms canvassed in a report looking into employer responses to Covid-19, 12 agreed to salary reductions, and all but one initially opted for the wage subsidy. Salary reductions were as high as 40 per cent at some firms.
To tackle the increase in employment issues, a pro bono panel and employment law committee was formed, allowing for union advocates to give free or reduced-cost legal services and guidance to its members. The committee, headed by Maria Dew QC and convened by Zoe Lawton, consists of seven junior, mid, and senior members of the profession.
Who are the co-presidents?
The pro-bono panel is something to be proud of, newly elected co-president Bridget Sinclair told me over the phone. The junior lawyer has been practising for four years (formerly at Buddle Findlay, now at Darroch Forrest Lawyers) and it was her interest in employment and health law that drove her to be involved in the union. In fact, almost two years ago, the union was dreamt up in her Torrens Terrace lounge in Wellington.
"At the time, our thinking was that there was a [great number of people] struggling in the profession, and there was a real need for a community. There's a lot of space for a particular type of legal worker (which often excludes support staff) and we wanted to empower those marginalised and give them a voice.
"There was a real gap and frustration among people who wanted to be proud of the profession but felt they weren't able to [because of the revelations of sexual assault in the industry in 2018]."
This is not Sinclair's first rodeo. She was deputy convener and then convener of the Young Lawyers' Committee in Wellington in 2017 and 2018, and she has served as a committee member of the Wellington Women in Law Committee. How does the union differ from these groups? For one, the union is not affiliated with the Law Society, she said, and the union aspect imposes obligations on employers to engage in discussions.
Meanwhile, Kensington Swan/Dentons lawyer and newly appointed co-president Indiana Shewen got involved in the union after being heavily involved in the student protests after the Russell McVeagh revelations in 2018. At the time she was the equity officer for the Law Students' Society while studying law at Victoria University [of Wellington].
"The role quickly changed focus as I had to see how the students might be affected and how we could support students going into the legal profession."
The events and her involvement were such that she decided against taking up a secured position at a big law firm. Instead, she took a year off to pursue a full-immersion te reo Māori language course. Shewen is now using her experiences to inform her presidency.
"What we are seeing is that vulnerable people in the profession have been made even more vulnerable as a result of Covid-19. If we can provide assistance and have a collective voice to hold those in power to account, then we are on the right trajectory."
Where to from here?
Sinclair said the groundwork had been done in terms of making sure lawyers are paid a minimum and living wage relative to the long hours worked. For her, getting a collective agreement that ensures lawyers are paid overtime is the ultimate goal.
"I think it would really get to the root of the issue. Currently there is a real business interest to make sure people - usually junior lawyers - work as many hours as possible. So often your work environment and demands are team or manager-dependent.
"If each firm were to have an overtime policy there would be business motivations to ensure people work reasonable hours. It could make a real difference to people's lives."
Ultimately, being a member of the union is not something to be scared of, she said.
"Members can be entirely anonymous, which is really important for some. There is still anxiety and fear of being labelled a troublemaker. But I believe that looking at the numbers and the significant senior lawyer members involved - I don't think there needs to be the same fear as there used to be.
"The union is not just a bunch of young lawyers who want a pay rise, it is so much more than that."