There's a certain magnificence in the irony of lawyers failing to protect the rights of their own employees. Often privileged and certainly intelligent, you'd also assume junior lawyers were the most equipped among employees to fight for their rights.
Yet while the Russell McVeagh allegations brought to light systemic issues of sexual harassment in the law, it also revealed underlying issues of bullying and exploitation. And so it was that finally the Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union was born in May this year to give a voice to those with little bargaining power.
In just over two months the union has clocked almost 480 members, interim president Hayley Coles said.
It is noteworthy that overseas there is the Legal Sector Workers United in the UK, the Australian Services Union, the Association of Justice Counsel in Canada, and the National Lawyers Association in the US. So why has New Zealand been so late in the game?
"There used to be a union for lawyers in the eighties, when it was compulsory, but it collapsed as many did when it became voluntary. I think people haven't started [a union]
since then perhaps because of fear of repercussions, or people simply didn't get around to it."
Reasons or excuses for the lack of a union are many. It could be because there's an abundance of graduates in what is a small, competitive market. Or that if you were one of the lucky ones, it's a case of playing nice. Any objections could lead to a reduction in work, which means no job, and no career. It could also be that "it's always been this way". If it ain't broke - that is, for the people in power - then why fix it?
Given the old legal trope 'work hard, play hard', it's of little surprise the union has tasked itself with making sure firms are complying with the Minimum Wage Act. Say you're a graduate lawyer on $46,000 - no joke - you have to work just 10 hours more than your standard 40-hour week to be in breach of the Act.
"Firms don't realise about these possible breaches. It's happening, it's rife, and it's quite common if you're a first year when there's an expectation to work long hours," Coles said.
Having conducted a survey asking 190 respondents for their hours and working conditions (initial results are not for the faint hearted) the union is now in the throes of contacting each firm, in a bid to educate. And while the largest 15 firms have been very happy to meet with the union, "no one is rushing to admit they're breaching minimum wage requirements".
"The fact that juniors could be billing up to $300 per hour and be paid below minimum wage, is adding insult to injury," she said.
"We like to think it's a matter of firms not putting two and two together, rather than it being a case of intentionally exploiting juniors. Maybe it's willful blindness, or maybe if you're not an employment lawyer you mightn't have your head around the issues."
Perhaps it's a case of a rite of passage. In any event the traditional narrative that lawyers earn a lot of money - or will do so in the future - serves as a justification to withstand the pressure and stress doesn't stand true. "We're losing amazing legal minds because of these conditions."
Coles said it's not a question of trying to reduce the long hours - it's a reality for most - but rather ensuring people are paid for their work.
I approached 13 of the largest law firms in New Zealand. Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, DLA Piper, Duncan Cotterill, Kensington Swan, Lane Neave, Russell McVeagh, and Simpson Grierson were either supportive of, or engaging with the union.
Eight of the nine firms who commented said overtime was a reality, in order to meet respective client and work deliverables. No firm specified the average number of hours worked overtime, but stressed that it happened occasionally.
Bell Gully, Duncan Cotterill, DLA Piper paid according to market rates. Duncan Cotterill and Lane Neave confirmed they paid above the Living Wage.
In the case of DLA Piper, "[Junior] salaries and benefits - as in many occupations - are calculated to compensate for any extra requirements". Duncan Cotterill echoed similar sentiments. Similarly, Kensington Swan didn't have a formal overtime policy, and Chapman Tripp didn't speak to the question.
Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Duncan Cotterill, Kensington Swan and Russell McVeagh, monitored hours. Bell Gully and Lane Neave offered time in lieu, the latter being subject to a specific overtime policy.
The question is ultimately whether policies are actually applied. Are junior lawyers reluctant to report overtime as a perception of not completing work at an acceptable speed? If the onus is on the junior to inform their partner - their superior - should it be independently monitored?
One thing is certain, all firms said wellbeing was of absolute importance. This manifested in some sort of wellness subsidy, EAP counselling services, flexible working conditions, volunteer or pro bono work, and sports teams.
I wonder whether wellbeing and working overtime is a contradiction in terms. It seems wellbeing initiatives are being confused with what could be described as perks of the job - the fox in charge of the hen-house employing a band aid approach, so-to-speak. And wellbeing, well, as is the case with this year's 'Wellbeing Budget,' I'm at a loss - as is the rest of the population - to identify an exact definition.
Perhaps tangential but it's no secret that women are under-represented at partner/board level. What person - male or female - can work overtime while having caregiving responsibilities? And if said person working overtime can afford paid help, should they
need to use it?
On a brighter note, Kensington Swan is teaming up with global giant Dentons. The move will bring greater international opportunities, Partner Hayden Wilson said. There will be no outsourcing of legal work, redundancies, or any restructuring as a result of the merger, he said.
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