Catholic lawyers have been told the legal profession can overcome its current crisis after being forced to face major issues like bullying in the workplace, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

The head of the Law Society’s Culture Change Taskforce, Kathryn Beck, was the guest speaker at the St Thomas More Society dinner on October 16 at the Northern Club in Auckland.

Ms Beck clarified that she was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the society or the taskforce. St Thomas More Society is an association of Catholic lawyers.

Ms Beck, Law Society immediate past president, said a workplace environment survey conducted last year showed a “pretty ugly” picture of the state of the profession.

“I thought we would find that the issues were systemic but not endemic. We would find sexism and some ingrained misogyny (some gender discrimination) but that most sexual harassment would be historical or at the lower end in terms of comments and jokes and that our biggest problem would be bullying,” she said. “I was wrong.”

Ms Beck, a Baptist minister’s daughter, said what got her through the scandals that rocked the legal profession last year was “hope and faith”.

“There is a bigger purpose to what we do. We do have a crucial role in our justice system. But we can’t fulfil that role if we don’t have the trust of the society we serve. And we can’t do that if we don’t look after our people,” she said.

Ms Beck reimagined the legal profession in terms of St Thomas More’s Utopia.

The self-contained community of Utopia in More’s book had very few laws and they were all clearly written, so there were no lawyers, she said.

Utopian leaders and judges were immune to bribery because money did not exist.

“I can hear the panicked shallow breathing from here. It’s all right, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the lawyers and just keep the judges . . . although I have to say there were a few people at table 3 that were looking quite happy with that idea,” she assured the laughing crowd.

In Ms Beck’s Utopia, there will be “a sustainable, colourful and supportive legal community where everyone can flourish”.

“A Utopian profession would be truly representative of the society it serves. In New Zealand that would be a bi-cultural and multi-cultural society with a colourful range of ethnicities, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, gender and sexual diversity,” she said. “Civil society would direct that each member is equal, culturally competent and must conduct themselves with
the utmost integrity.”

Ms Beck said there is no grand solution to the crisis at the moment.

“There will be some things that happen at a macro level but ultimately
this is about us,” she said.

She stressed each person can make a difference in their own small way.

“Even the small things matter — what you say and do. How you say it. The things you tolerate. . . It’s the little things that will make a difference. And that is why I have complete faith in our ability to do this,” she said.

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