New Zealand Law Society - Legal Workplace Environment Survey shows progress, but challenges remain

Legal Workplace Environment Survey shows progress, but challenges remain

The New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa says survey results which show a decline in sexual harassment within law practices over the last five years are a step in the right direction, but that reluctance to report is an ongoing issue.

Law Society Chief Executive Katie Rusbatch says, “These survey results provide important insights into the key issue of workplace safety and culture. It is encouraging to see some signs of progress, although the survey shows there’s still a lot more work to do.” 

The prevalence of sexual harassment among all lawyers has decreased applying both the sexual harassment definition in the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 (the Rules) (10 percent to 7 per cent) and a behavioural definition (27 per cent to 22 per cent). 

Lawyers who have been sexually harassed in the last five years are much less likely to feel the behaviour was ‘common’ in their workplace at the time of the harassment – from 23 per cent in 2018, to 12 per cent in 2023. The drop is bigger for medium-large law firms. Over the last five years the proportion of lawyers who have encountered sexual harassment, as a bystander, has dropped 9 percentage points, to 19 per cent. 

“While the only acceptable number for incidents of sexual harassment is zero, I’m optimistic that the drop in incidents of sexual harassment provides further signs that the profession is changing for the better. It shows that recent high-profile cases, changes to professional standards rules and clear messaging about zero tolerance of sexual harassment are making a difference.” 

“However, there is still a reluctance to seek support and speak up about unacceptable behaviour for fear of the consequences or a distrust in the process. It’s those barriers we want to break down, and to see lawyers raising these issues with their employers and the Law Society.” 

General workplace wellbeing, bullying and employment discrimination, were other key areas examined by the survey. 

Workplace wellbeing 

Three quarters of the legal community have a great deal of job satisfaction. Ms Rusbatch says this is not surprising. “Many lawyers say that they entered the legal profession because they want to help people”.  

Job stressors have reduced since 2018; however, lawyers are less likely to feel that their stress is appropriately managed in 2023. “We know that some areas of legal work such as criminal law and family law are under immense workload pressure”, says Ms Rusbatch. 

“It is also concerning to see that work-life balance is lowest among Pacific people working in the legal community.


Bullying remains a common experience in the legal community. Half of respondents have experienced bullying in a legal setting in their lifetime. However, the number of lawyers experiencing bullying in the last six months using the Rules definition, has decreased from 21 per cent in 2018 to 17 per cent in 2023.  

“It is good to see some shifts in the level of bullying being experienced in the legal community and that physically intimidating behaviour and some person-related bullying behaviours have declined since 2018. However, the survey shows that bullying needs to be a continued focus for the profession,” says Ms Rusbatch. 

Employment discrimination 

Eleven per cent of the legal community have experienced some form of employment discrimination in the last five years. Gender, age and ethnicity dominate this area, with a disproportionately high representation amongst Pacific peoples 

“The questions on employment discrimination were new in the 2023 survey, as this is an area that the Law Society wants to understand,” says Ms Rusbatch. “The most common effects relate to damaged career prospects and harm to mental wellbeing.  

It is important that the profession provides a safe and inclusive environment, and that the diversity of the profession reflects the community it is serving. 

What the Law Society is doing? 

The Law Society is committed to eliminating the culture of bullying, harassment and discrimination which exists in some parts of the legal profession. 

“We don’t want any of our lawyers being harassed, bullied or discriminated against”, Ms Rusbatch says. Acknowledging the issues was one of the factors that triggered changes to the Rules in 2021, and the Independent Review.  

“We recognised that in many areas – particularly complaints – we were hampered by our legislative framework. The Law Society commissioned the Review, and we welcomed its findings.” The Law Society has provided its response to the Minister of Justice, so that it can be considered for the Government’s legislative agenda. 

“We have made progress in the regulatory area. There is a new regulatory strategy in place and the Rules relating to unacceptable behaviour have been comprehensively reformed. Sexual harassment has clearly been found to be misconduct by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal.” 

“As the kaitiaki of the legal profession, we recognised that there have been issues, and that as a regulator and representative body we needed to act. The Law Society is committed to ensuring that all lawyers are treated with respect, courtesy and fairness and maintain the standards expected of the profession at all times.” 

“There is no end to this work. The responsibilities are ongoing for the legal profession.”  

The Law Society is working hard to provide representative services to its members especially in the area of lawyer wellbeing. “As a regulator, we’re aware that if left unaddressed, poor wellbeing can flow into disciplinary issues,” Ms Rusbatch says. “We’d prefer to prevent those outcomes, and I encourage lawyers to take advantage of the Law Society’s Practising Well initiatives.”  

The National Friends Panel is made up of lawyers who can be contacted on a confidential basis with questions or concerns relating to practice issues. Additionally, several lawyers are also available to discuss sensitive matters such as workplace harassment.  

The Law Society has a dedicated LawCare 0800 phone line (0800 0800 28) which is a confidential point of contact for lawyers and law firm employees who have experienced, witnessed, or been affected by sexual assault, sexual harassment, or other unacceptable behaviour. 

Unacceptable behaviour can be reported to 0800 261 801, or on the Report a lawyer website page. You can also raise a concern and have a Professional Standards Officer call you back. The Law Society has a specialist team in the Lawyers Complaints Service that handles sensitive matters and can discuss these matters with you on a confidential basis. 

The Law Society has published Guidance on professional standards and reporting obligations. This guidance is intended to help lawyers to understand their obligations, and to support and empower people who are affected by unacceptable behaviour. 

Why we did the survey 

The 2023 Kantar Public and New Zealand Law Society Legal Workplace Environment Survey was commissioned by the Law Society in a commercial partnership with leading data insights company, Kantar Public. The 2023 survey follows up on the 2018 Legal Workplace Environment Survey. The action points that came from the 2018 survey resulted in the new designated lawyer obligations, and a clarified set of behaviour expectations that are now included in the Rules.

Definitions and updates on the 2018 survey 

It should be noted that the survey uses both the Rules definitions and behavioural definitions for sexual harassment and bullying. The survey uses the Employment New Zealand definition for employment discrimination. The 2018 survey used the Human Rights Commission definition for sexual harassment and the Employment New Zealand definition for bullying as this conduct was not specifically defined in the RCCC at the time. These are identified with the relevant numerical results and explained in the summary document.  

The 2023 questionnaire was largely the same as the 2018 questionnaire to allow for direct comparability of results. The questions about employment discrimination were new in the 2023 survey and provide a benchmark for comparison of future surveys. Non-lawyers were not surveyed in 2018.

Survey process and response rate 

Potential respondents comprising 15,573 practising certificate holders and 614 non-lawyers, were each provided a unique link to participate in the survey. The overall response rate to the survey was 15 per cent. The total sample size 2,355 – this comprised 1,992 lawyers and 363 non-lawyers who completed the survey.  

The 2023 survey showed a shift in the gender profile of respondents from 49.7 per cent male, 49.9 per cent female and 0.4 per cent gender diverse in 2018 to 45 per cent male, 54 per cent female and 1 per cent other gender. These are proportionally representative of the populations of lawyers at the times of both surveys. Of the non-lawyers surveyed, they represented 88 per cent female and 12 per cent male.

More information: 

Summary of results

2023 Kantar Public and New Zealand Law Society Legal Workplace Environment Survey full report