Bell Gully partner Anna Buchly describes the current and past landscape of diversity and inclusion in the New Zealand legal industry


How do you think the covid-19 pandemic has or will impact gender parity in the legal profession within your jurisdiction?

I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-term impact on gender parity in the legal profession. In a short timeframe, people’s personal circumstances were suddenly front and centre – whether that was home-schooling children or looking after elderly relatives. Even if people hadn’t had conversations recently about work flexibility, it forced employers to check in more closely with staff – you were in the living rooms with their family. For us in New Zealand, it has developed into an understanding that we can support individual’s personal circumstances, while the firm continues to operate productively. I hope this acknowledgement leads to greater recognition of flexible working in particular.


What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?

I am grateful that over my career so far, I haven’t had to contend with directly contend with a specific gender-based obstacles. Over the past 20 years, I’ve seen a generational change within the legal profession around gender diversity which has been the result of some amazing pioneering women and a growing focus on gender diversity across the legal profession. That has allowed individuals like myself to have the opportunity to grow and be confident about what we could achieve.


From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment in which you work now compare to the one you began your career in?

Gender equality has become a fundamentally different issue than when I started as a lawyer. When I entered the profession, my cohort was roughly a 50-50 gender split, a much more even split than what we have now. However, there wasn’t there a focus on building a pathway to the top and there were few women in senior positions. Now, there is a real emphasis on sustainable diversity – making changes that don’t just mean empty policies or tick boxes, but creating a regime that means diversity naturally grows across the firm on merit. This job is challenging and hard enough, but you need to have the confidence that you have achieved your successes on merit and your own work – not just ticking boxes or meeting policy requirements.


Do you feel the legal profession within the jurisdiction where you are based treats women and men equally? If there are inconsistencies where are these most noticeable?

I think that where the profession in New Zealand sits today, there are good elements of gender equality, but there is more to be done. There is a significant focus on diversity through initiatives and policies and these are welcomed by all. Today’s law students in New Zealand are predominately female and this only challenges us further to identify where potential issues are within the system and support as many people as possible through the various pathways. Compared to other jurisdictions, New Zealand’s starting point for gender equality is also quite different – we were the first country in the world to give women the vote, for example. There is certainly more work to be done, but culturally we are driven towards equality and this is reflected across what law firms and industry bodies are doing.


Who do you consider have been the leading figures in your jurisdiction’s legal profession in improving or challenging gender equality in the last decade and why?

There have been numerous New Zealanders that have led the way on challenging gender equality. Two great examples are Dame Sian Elias who was Chief Justice of New Zealand for close to 20 years, as well as Dame Silvia Cartwright who was Governor-General for five years and was one of two international judges in the Trial Chamber of the Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal. I remember back in 2005 all the most senior positions of state were simultaneously held by women, Margaret Wilson (Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives), Queen Elizabeth II (Queen of New Zealand), Silvia Cartwright (Governor-General of New Zealand), Sian Elias (Chief Justice of New Zealand), and Helen Clark (Prime Minister of New Zealand). This highlighted to me how far the country had come over the years as well as enabling me to reflect on my own career pathway and goals.


Are there any initiatives within the legal profession in your jurisdiction to promote gender equality?

There are a number of initiatives currently underway, with the New Zealand Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter being the most significant for improving the retention and advancement of women lawyers. The Charter is open to the whole legal profession. Law firms, in-house legal teams, sole practitioners (including barristers sole) and barristers’ chambers can all sign up to signal their commitment to gender equality and inclusion. Commitments include tackling unconscious bias, encouraging flexible working, closing the gender pay gap and promoting equitable instructions. A number of New Zealand’s law firms also participate in the Global Women NZ and Champions for Change initiative which Bell Gully is a supporting partner of.


What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality? Does your firm have other diversity programmes?

Diversity has been a strategic priority for the firm throughout the past 10 years, which has resulted in a number of important initiatives focused on diverse representation at all levels. Among these are formal targets for women’s participation in the partnership, with an initial goal of 25% reached five years early. The next goal is to reach 33% by 2025, with a longer-term goal of having a 40:40:20 split across our partnership and staff.

We have put leadership in place to support diversity and inclusion through a number of networks within the firm, empowering challenge to existing structures and providing representation. These include networks representing women, parents and LGBTQI+ team members. They support diversity and inclusion that isn’t just driven by senior management, or formal policies, but are part of how we work together. Our diversity and inclusion initiatives (which we broadly call ‘BelonG’) aren’t only about gender but look to ensure we are more broadly growing to represent the community we live in. Governance comes from our Diversity and Inclusion Committee and includes regular reporting to our Board on representation, in all areas that can impact the progression to partnership – down to elements like speaking opportunities and representation on pitches to clients.


Does the legal profession within your jurisdiction or your firm have any initiatives to support working mothers?

As part of our BelonG Committee, we are proud to have a strong parents network which is a key way for us to demonstrate ongoing support to our working parents. While on parental leave, new parents receive regular check-ins with our HR team as well as salary top-up payments and additional assistance. The network also provides opportunities for parents to connect with each other and through their families. The firm hosts an annual children's Christmas party and children's picnic, as well as an 'offspring in the office' day where people can bring their children to the office for a chance to see where their parents work, interact with colleagues and some activities. It is important to us that we recognise the role our working parents play outside of the workplace, and to bridge the gap between home and work commitments.
However, there is no one size fits all approach to supporting working parents. Within Bell Gully, HR, partners and managers ensure that different options are available, taking into account personal circumstances. Of course, these conversations continue after parents return to work, making sure we are supporting individuals balance commitments both at home and in the workplace.


How does your firm compare to others in your market when considering gender equality?

Bell Gully continues to improve our own internal processes to ensure gender equality at the firm. There is certainly more work to do, but if recent years are anything to go by, the more that these important issues are discussed and initiatives implemented, we are on the right track. As a leader within the firm, I believe I hold responsibility to ensure gender equality is always on the agenda. We continue to look at the New Zealand market as well as other jurisdictions and challenge ourselves to be better. Whether it’s winners out of the UN White Camellia Awards or Employer of Choice winners, it’s vital to be able to reflect and adopt innovative policies and solutions.


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?

I think one of the biggest obstacles remains supporting younger women in law onto a pathway and a full career to partnership if that’s what they want. Our university numbers show that women want a career in law, but the reality is that the first 2-3 years can be challenging and many decide to pursue other options. It’s important for firms like Bell Gully to continue investing in training and development for younger lawyers to build that confidence and give them the tools to climb the ladder and build a career.


Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within the jurisdiction where you are based? If not, what do you think can be done to ensure women are well represented in these positions?

I believe that women are well represented at partner and management level across New Zealand, but there is still more work to be done in particular expertise areas, such as corporate. Of course, one of the challenges is that we don’t rest on our laurels, and continue to set new and ambitious goals that push the dial. The changes we make today impact the next generation coming through so I’m confident that we will continue to see a strong pipeline of female talent rising through New Zealand law firms into partner and management positions. As mentioned earlier, Bell Gully has a longer-term goal of having a 40:40:20 split across our partnership and staff.


What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?

Everyone has sat in your position before. It can be overwhelming and stressful coming into a law firm and working with partners, but it’s vital to remember that support structures exist and there are people who can help. You also need to find an environment that suits you and your own circumstances, where you feel comfortable, do great work, can build confidence and personal strengths.


If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?

Paid parental leave in New Zealand is currently 26 weeks, which was extended from 22 weeks from 1 July 2020. While this was significant legislative change, it would be great to adopt the model of many European nations where it is typical to have closer to a year or more of paid parental leave. This can also be linked into providing child care support for parents who wish to return to full-time jobs – allowing greater work-life balance.