Sasha Borissenko: On the anniversary of controversy, how much has the legal industry actually changed?

It’s been a week since Waitangi Day, and with it comes annual tokenistic conversations around equity, diversity, and representation.

It’s also a time where bitter souls the world-over shudder at the insufferable marketing around Valentine’s Day, which just so happens to coincide with the anniversary of the Russell McVeagh allegations made public so many moons ago.

How much has changed? I talked with Aotearoa Legal Union co-president Indiana Shewen to find out.

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Last year the union kicked off a minimum wage and living wage campaign; engaged with regulators and firms; and it continues to promise to prioritise collective bargaining.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of people working overtime for free, mental health and burnout. For me, these things are my passion as I can recognise how they exacerbate particularly among people with different backgrounds,” Shewen said.

Cultural competency

People from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or varied histories often are the most vulnerable in legal workplaces.

“You might have more complex issues in your personal life, for example. As a young Māori woman coming into the profession, I had to consider my pay, as I didn’t have the financial backing to sustain the long hours and poor pay as a graduate,”Shewen said.

“Then there’s the issue of intergenerational trauma and having family members through the state system – it’s meant I have had to assess the culture of the workplace, whether I’m going to be affected by unconscious bias that might affect my progression and opportunities.”

For these reasons Shewen kicked off her career by working at Kahui Legal. “I was so comfortable bringing my whole self to work. Māori lawyers all spoke te reo with me, I was heavily supported – but it was a completely different environment to working at a bigger firm where I found I was the only brown face in the office.”

She remembers experiencing unconscious bias – being used as a “Māori dictionary”, for example. She’d be expected to organise Māori Language Week last minute and be included in client calls as a Māori representative to garner better relationships with clients.

“I personally found it difficult because I thought I was hired on the basis of my academic qualities. I didn’t apply on the basis of being Māori, otherwise I would have stayed at Kahui Law where I could thrive.”

There’s an extra mental load that Pakeha don’t experience as you have to think about what you have to put in place to preserve your mental health and preserve your sense of Māoridom.

“And when you’re put in these situations it leads to internal conflict. You start to ask, am I Māori enough? Am I denying my culture? Of course, minorities are more vulnerable when it comes to burnout.”

Tokenism

We are working in a time where everyone recognises the value of diversity, and the value of having different backgrounds but there the system is such that firms easily slip into tokenism, she says.

“You can’t benefit from having diverse people in the workplace without investing in the underlying kaupapa and support. Firms need to ask, alongside being a place with diverse people, are you a place where those people want to work? What’s the lifestyle like? Is there support and flexibility?”

Everyone is aware that these cultural issues are entrenched in the profession, she says. “If we are honest about it, the current partnership model is not suitable for anyone other than straight, white, men. We have had this discussion over and over again and yet we still operate in a system that fails people.”

“The problem is that firms with these structures don’t appeal to a diverse range of people. It’s a real shame. It means we are missing out on good talent.”

Representation

If we look at women represented in firm partnership, of the largest firms Meredith Connell and Dentons Kensington Swan have the highest proportion at 41 per cent. Thirty-two per cent of women make up the partnership at Russell McVeagh, followed by Minter Ellison Rudd Watts and Simpson Grierson with 30 per cent.

Twenty-seven per cent of the partnership is made up of women at Chapman Tripp and Bell Gully, followed by Buddle Findlay at 26 per cent, and Anthony Harper at 23 per cent. Just 21 per cent of the partnership is made up of women at Duncan Cotterill.

“My greatest fear is that if vulnerable people don’t feel like they can talk to people, or voice their concerns, it means these problems fall by the wayside,” Shewen said.

The union’s success has been in facilitating such discussion. As the co-president puts it, “If you can’t discuss things such as overtime, wellbeing or pay, how are you ever going to talk about harassment or tokenism?”

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