One in five lawyers has been sexually harassed in the workplace, according to an examination of the legal fraternity by the New Zealand Law Society after a series of scandals hit the country's top law firms.

The same results showed about one in three female lawyers has been sexually harassed at some time during her career.

A confidential online survey of lawyers was conducted from April 5 to May 1, with 13,662 lawyers invited to take part. The survey was managed by Colmar Brunton.

Only 3516 lawyers completed the survey - a response rate of 26 per cent.

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The survey is the most thorough examination of the legal profession's workplace environment, said the Law Society, which commissioned the investigation after increasing numbers of young women complained about sexual harassment within the profession.

Most notable were the allegations at law firm Russell McVeagh.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said the survey findings were "deeply saddening" and showed "a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession".

About 18 per cent of lawyers (31 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men) reported having been sexually harassed during their working life, the survey found.

Ten per cent of lawyers (17 per cent of women and 3 per cent of men) have been sexually harassed in the past five years, and 28 per cent of lawyers have seen sexual harassment in a legal environment during their working life (to date).

In the past five years, 33 per cent of female lawyers also experienced crude or offensive behaviour, such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes that made them feel offended.

The survey also showed 30 per cent received unwanted sexual attention, such as intrusive questions about their private lives or physical appearance that they found offensive.

Twelve per cent received inappropriate physical contact/sexual assault, and 5 per cent sexual coercion.

One in five lawyers has also been bullied in a legal environment during the past six months.

Strikingly, the survey showed judges are blamed for 44 per cent of lawyers working in criminal law and 50 per cent of barristers who have been bullied.

The biggest bully in a lawyer's workplace was their manager/supervisor/partner/director at 65 per cent.

The survey found that 52 per cent of lawyers have experienced bullying to some degree and 21 per cent of lawyers have experienced bullying in the past six months.

About 40 per cent of lawyers under 30 also believe major changes are needed to their workplace culture.

The results, however, showed most lawyers enjoy their work but workplace pressures were evident.

About 79 per cent of lawyers get a "great deal of satisfaction" from their jobs, and enjoy the respect they deserve from colleagues and managers, including partners and directors.

Beck thanked the courageous young women who, she said, by telling their stories of being sexually harassed at work and leading the discussion, have allowed light to be shone into corners of the legal profession that have been under cover for too long.

"We must call a spade a spade - there is a cultural crisis in the New Zealand legal profession," she said.

Beck said, like the legal profession generally, the Law Society had been caught flat-footed by the wave of sexual harassment and assault accusations.

"The stories kept coming. How big was this problem? We didn't know. Why didn't we know about it? We didn't know that either," she told journalists today.

"The state of our legal workplaces is unacceptable."

She apologised and acknowledged the Law Society had not provided the cultural leadership to the profession that, with the benefit of this research, is now so obviously required.

"I'm disappointed that this research is a surprise to us. I'm disappointed we heard about so much through the media. I'm disappointed that, for whatever reason, people chose not to report their experiences to us. I'm disappointed that for so many people, the law has not been a safe profession."

Former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright is the chair of the regulatory working group. Photo / Dean Purcell
Former Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright is the chair of the regulatory working group. Photo / Dean Purcell

She denied that the Law Society was complicit and said "those that are complicit are the ones that have sexually abused and bullied people".

Beck believed there had been inaction because there was silence.

"Why were people silent? Because they feared for their careers," she explained.

She acknowledged the power imbalance in an industry that works with a well-established hierarchy had helped fuel bullying in the profession.

In an open letter to lawyers today, Beck also said a powerful force using the courage of individuals to speak out against injustice and inequality was being heard worldwide.

"Think Weinstein in the United States and the #MeToo movement," she wrote.

"But this disruption is not confined to other countries. This is happening to our profession as we speak. Courageous young women have taken a stand and told their stories of sexual harassment and discrimination within our community."

She said the responsibility for change "lies with every one of us".

New Zealand Bar Association president Clive Elliott, QC, said the survey needs to be a catalyst for change.

He said the findings are disturbing and "unveiled for all to see, what obviously many in our profession knew already".

Green MP Jan Logie, the Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice (domestic and sexual violence issues), said the results were bleak.

"No part of our society is free from abusive, controlling behaviour. But it's especially concerning here because the integrity of the legal profession is critical to give victims of sexual violence confidence in the justice system," she said.

"Victims cannot be confident when the exact same exploitation and coercion is happening in the very institutions which are meant to help them."

A regulatory working group that the Law Society has already established, chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, is further examining many of these matters and potential changes to regulatory systems that guide the legal profession.

A task group will further be established by the Law Society to investigate the problems.

In March, Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty also announced an external review would take place on sexual harassment within the firm during 2015 and 2016.

The review, which is yet to have a release date scheduled, is led by Dame Margaret Bazley, who headed the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct in 2007 and was a member of the Waitangi Tribunal for 10 years.

Beck said the New Zealand legal profession is now in the middle of a major cultural disruption.

"It cannot and will not return to the way it was. While painful, embarrassing and difficult to confront, this disruption is a gift from courageous young people that the New Zealand legal community will not squander."