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Advocates for Change unite to eliminate sexual harassment in the legal profession

Colleagues collaborating.

Lander & Rogers' Chief Executive Partner, Genevieve Collins, together with a small group of co-convenors, has established Advocates for Change ‒ a group of Victorian legal professionals committed to taking action to eliminate sexual harassment in the profession.

Advocates for Change is a diverse group of more than 50 Victorian legal professionals from across public and private organisations and community legal centres. The purpose of the group is to raise awareness, share experiences, encourage mutual learning and good practice, and commit to being advocates for change. Advocates for Change encourages members of the legal profession to take part in open conversations about the practical steps that firms and individuals can take in 2022 to eliminate sexual harassment in their organisations.

Under the leadership of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), and co-convener: Genevieve Collins (Chief Executive Partner, Lander & Rogers), Justice Chris Maxwell (President of the Victorian Court of Appeal), Adam Awty (CEO, Law Institute of Victoria), and John Somerville (CEO, Slater and Gordon), Advocates for Change has met in small groups since June 2021.

Walking the talk on this issue, last year Lander & Rogers overhauled its sexual harassment policy and redefined guidelines around consensual relationships in the workplace, introducing mandatory reporting for anyone who experiences, witnesses or becomes aware of sexual harassment within the firm. This set a new standard for other law firms and organisations in addressing a pervasive issue that disproportionately impacts women in the workplace. Ms Collins said the Advocates for Change group will play an important role in promoting open dialogue on sexual harassment and the experiences of those affected by it.

“Our Advocates for Change initiative promotes important dialogue across various levels of the profession. By discussing the causes, experiences and successful responses and practices by firm management, we are both raising awareness and generating information and ideas which might otherwise not be considered,” Ms Collins said.

Justice Maxwell said he was encouraged by the willingness of lawyers at all levels to step forward and commit to real, meaningful reform.

“I have been struck by the commitment of participants, their unity of purpose and eagerness to find new ways to address sexual harassment. I think there are signs of progress in the key areas on which real change depends: awareness, engagement and leadership,” Justice Maxwell said.

LIV CEO Adam Awty called on all members of the legal profession to take individual responsibility to bring about collective change in eliminating sexual harassment.

“Eliminating sexual harassment within the legal profession is something that every organisation involved in the law needs to be committed to, at a policy level and at a practical level. The LIV has, and continues to, develop practical measures so that all members of the profession work in a safe and supported environment,” Mr Awty said.

“But these ongoing discussions and sharing of ideas and practical solutions are also critical for the profession if it is to evolve and change. Combatting sexual harassment is not only an issue for women. Men need to take a leadership role together with women to bring real change to the profession, and individuals must take responsibility to drive effective action within their organisations. The LIV is proud to be an Advocate for Change,” Said Mr Awty.

Slater and Gordon CEO John Somerville says he welcomed the opportunity to play a key role in addressing such an urgent issue within the legal profession.

“Harassment and bullying are a blight on society and diminish all of us. The fact it is prevalent in the legal industry, which stands for justice and fairness, is an issue that needs urgent attention. That’s why I was very pleased to co-convene this important initiative and to see the enthusiasm and energy brought to bear by colleagues across the industry to identify ways to combat this blight,” Mr Somerville said.

In April 2021, Dr Helen Szoke published her final report on the Review of Sexual Harassment in Victorian Courts, which found that sexual harassment was an ‘open secret’ in the legal profession, and, in June 2021, a report by the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner found that one in three respondents to its 2019 survey of legal professionals had personally experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

As part of its ongoing commitment to eliminating sexual harassment, the LIV has also designed practical resources to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. These include practice and ethics support lines for practitioners, model policies that firms can adapt for their individual practices, employer’s guides, education and training sessions, all of which are available on the LIV website. The LIV has also invested in member counselling and support services through Access EAP, which provides LIV members with free access to a diverse range of private and confidential advice.

Photo by MesquitaFMS on iStock.

Key contacts

Genevieve Collins

Chief Executive Partner