Future lawyers – be an ally to those struggling

Earlier this year the New Zealand Law Society established a five-member working group  “to look at the processes for reporting and taking action on harassment and inappropriate behaviour in legal workplaces.”

One of the members is UC School of Law Professor Elisabeth McDonald who shares her thoughts on what it means to be a part of the working group, and has a message for future law students.

Q1:  What does it mean to you professionally/personally to be appointed to this working group?

I was encouraged to put in an expression of interest for one of the two lawyer positions on the group – because of my long-standing research interest in the prosecution of sexual offences and my interaction with students as an academic.

There are many others in the profession who would have much to add to this work, so I consequently feel significant personal pressure to make an effective contribution to these discussions. I feel privileged to have been appointed and will certainly make sure that my experience and research adds value to this task.

As the group of five is lacking somewhat in age and cultural diversity, I hope that there will be robust consultation with a wide range of practitioners and aspiring lawyers. What I do see in my research is some disconnect between the experiences of young people and those charged with decision-making that impacts on them – especially with regard to what is contemporary behaviour around intimate relationships, communication and expectations.

I also feel that lawyers can tend to be very process-driven in ways that might come across as dismissive to people who want their experiences to be heard and validated.

Q2: The topic of harassment or inappropriate workplace behaviour within the legal profession has experienced a high media profile. What is the ‘take home message’ you have for our UC students considering a career in the legal profession.

I have just read an excellent interview with three law students at Victoria as they contemplate graduating and entering the profession. They all express concern about the culture of the profession and hope that this moment (as a consequence of the events at Russell McVeagh being publicised) will result in real difference – while also importantly noting that individual students, like individual lawyers, are not often well-placed to complain or ask for  change.

I would say, do not be put off entering the profession – especially those who have been motivated to do so because they wish to contribute to law reform or making a difference more broadly.

However, make sure you make connections with others who can support you – keep in touch with your colleagues from law school, make new contacts within the various lawyers associations (especially Young Lawyers and Women Lawyers) – be an ally to those who are struggling for whatever reason (culture, sexual orientation, gender identity) and be kind to yourselves.

The first years out of law school, like most first jobs, will be exhausting and unfamiliar – but hopefully also exhilarating. Remember why you wanted to be a lawyer – and try to stay true to that dream.

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