Want change? Then start something different

This article first appeared in The Legal 500 December 2018/January 2019 issue of fivehundred.

MinterEllisonRuddWatts’ Sarah Sinclair talks to Asia Pacific editor John van der Luit-Drummond about gender diversity and wellbeing in New Zealand’s legal market.

Equality and wellbeing in the workplace –including in the legal profession – is increasingly under the spotlight around the world.

According to the latest statistics, from the New Zealand Law Society, women account for close to 70% of law graduates. Of the 13,103 lawyers currently practising in the country, 6,553 are women and 6,550 are men, yet women account for less than 39% of partners or directors in law firms.

In the nation’s 14 largest firms, women make up just under 28% of partners, while out of 307 Queen’s Counsel appointments made since 1907 just 34 have been women.

"The workforce is changing, so traditional approaches need to be challenged to see if they’re still fit for purpose"

Speaking in September 2017, ahead of the 124-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in New Zealand, Law Society president Kathryn Beck said: ‘As a nation we are proud of our status as the first country to give women the vote, but the legal profession needs to work together to continue to advance and retain our women lawyers.’

MinterEllisonRuddWatts has a history of encouraging gender diversity in the legal sector. An early example is appointing New Zealand’s first female partner of a large law firm in 1960. At present, the firm’s partnership comprises 30% women partners and board membership of 40%. However, partner and board member Sarah Sinclair recognises the need to continue to lead diversity initiatives to reap the business benefits.

While having the right policies in place is important, the real measure of an environment is its culture and how people behave, says Sinclair. ‘This firm has a strong focus on values of openness, honesty, equality, respect, acceptance, flexibility, wellbeing, and the health and safety of its people. People and culture must be at the heart of any business to succeed in today’s competitive environment.

‘As a partnership we are unanimous that people are our greatest asset, and hold the key to achieving our vision of being New Zealand’s firm of choice. We value a culture and workplace where all employees can thrive and give their best with confidence – where all our people can bring their “whole selves” to work.

‘Diversity is critical to an inclusive high-performance culture – and that’s diversity in all its forms. Achieving gender equality through women having leadership responsibilities is important, but additional programmes and initiatives that address underlying issues are essential.’

Today’s workforce – especially the millennial generation – is demanding more from employers, seeking roles with businesses that value and respect them as people with interests and commitments outside of work, so it’s vital firms adapt and are transparent around their values.

‘There is no doubt that the workforce is changing, so traditional approaches need to be challenged to see if they’re still fit for purpose,’ says Sinclair. ‘New tools are also needed to allow people to make informed decisions when selecting an employer.

‘We are operating in a world where our expectations of ourselves and each other continue to increase, and in an industry renowned as being stressful and demanding. It’s important to acknowledge that we all have times when things get hard and affect our ability to perform.’


International research suggests lawyers experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress compared to other professions. A recent study of 400 lawyers by the New Zealand Law Society found that 40% of respondents were deemed to have good overall wellbeing, while 53% were found to have at least one area of wellbeing that could be significantly improved. The remaining 7% were classified as having poor overall wellbeing, and needed to improve some key lifestyle behaviours.

In response to a greater focus on lawyer wellbeing, MinterEllisonRuddWatts recently introduced an innovative programme to offer further support to its people. The programme, called AnchorME, is in addition to traditional support structures offered by employee assistance programmes and is the first line of defence to ensure the wellbeing of the firm’s people.

‘Our culture is built on people first principles, and it’s vital that all of our people feel safe, respected and that they belong,’ explains Sinclair. ‘AnchorME is a group of volunteer ambassadors from every level of the firm who are trained and available to offer additional support, giving our people another avenue to reach out and seek help. The ambassadors listen and guide towards next steps, and are tasked with observing and asking, “are you OK?”.’

As Sinclair explains, AnchorME supports the firm’s wider empowerment, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.

‘We value the wellbeing of our people at work and in life – you can’t separate the two. We want to empower our people to make a difference, honour diversity and ensure that they feel they belong, even when facing challenges.’

A policy or formal programme is a clear way to mark a firm’s commitment to wellbeing and diversity, and should stem from a well-articulated strategy that is easily understood and supported at all levels. That means it should come from and be understood by the management board down.

‘Our Empowerment, Diversity and Inclusion to 2022 strategy seeks opportunities to encourage more diversity in the legal profession, and identifies how our firm offers support as this happens. It sets out our targets and what we will do to reach them,’ explains Sinclair.

An ‘Empower Leadership’ team and a wider ‘Empower’ team drive initiatives across the firm; the Empower team sets annual objectives and programmes which are agreed by the partnership, ensuring there is total buy-in and clarity for performance against objectives. Staff wellbeing and belonging is at the centre of these objectives.

Processes have also been designed to support these principles, including recruitment, employment, learning and development, reward and recognition and internal promotion practices. All of these processes have specific steps to address inclusion and evaluate diversity.

‘The strategy and the way it’s enacted has delivered tangible benefits for the firm including a further lift in staff engagement, creating greater respect and understanding of differences between our people, and improved collaboration to provide better business outcomes for our clients.’

The firm say AnchorME and its broader wellbeing programme is key to reaping the rewards of diversity and inclusion. The firm is adapting its priorities to incorporate feedback from its people. It takes a holistic view and includes access to seminars, training and support on topics like mindfulness, stress management, nutrition, resilience, physical exercise, and mental wellbeing.

‘We have a number of campaigns throughout the year to ensure our people have the tools to look after their “whole self”, which is vital for our firm’s ongoing success,’ adds Sinclair.

Good wellbeing is too important for firms to be secretive about their own successes. When asked what other firms should do to encourage diversity and guard their staff’s wellbeing, Sinclair offers the following advice: ‘Make a start – it’s often the hardest part, but if you want something to change, you need to do something different. Create a conversation with your peers, board, HR, or culture team by highlighting the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace with people at its centre.

‘Check-in with people at all levels of your firm to find people who share your appetite for change,’ she continues. ‘It’s OK to start small, but be sure you have the commitment and support to succeed. Once you start, you’ll see the benefits, which creates the momentum to keep going.’

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