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Legal workers’ union reveals overtime issues persist, workers ‘squeezed’

26 May 2023

| Author: Reweti Kohere

The average legal worker in New Zealand is working nearly a day for free each week, a new report from the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union (ALWU) has found.

The New Zealand Legal Industry Employment Report 2022/23 has revealed a 25% jump in the average amount of overtime worked each week since 2021, with legal workers on average working nearly six hours more than they are contracted for.

Of the 307 survey respondents, more than three-quarters (78%) report they usually work more hours than they are legally obliged to, with the amount of overtime higher in private firms of all sizes than in the public sector. In large private firms, overtime is especially common, with 92% of respondents reporting extra hours.

In almost all cases, their overtime isn’t remunerated or formally recognised in their employment contracts: 84% say their current employer doesn’t pay overtime and 78% have never been paid for working overtime in any way.

Where employees are compensated, it’s mostly in gift cards and other non-monetary forms and is largely discretionary. Over two-thirds of respondents report never having been offered time off in lieu by their employers.

“It’s time for legal employers to pay their staff for every hour they work. There’s no reason firms can’t pay their staff for all the hours they work – they’re charging clients for it,” says ALWU co-president Ollie Neas. “Paid overtime is not only the fair thing to do, it’s also essential for addressing the well-known problems with law firm culture.”

‘Squeezed’
In response to sexual harassment claims by former Russell McVeagh clerks and the firm’s broader workplace culture, Dame Margaret Bazley in 2018 recommended a formal system of paid overtime was “urgently needed” as the discretionary system of “catch-up” days and gift cards was unfair and didn’t work in all cases.

Neas says paid overtime will push firms to properly manage and resource their staff, helping make firms safer by helping reduce burnout and overwork.

“Paid overtime…is essential to changing this culture to ensure that the law is a safe and inclusive profession to work in.”

The overtime survey results support anecdotal “evidence” ALWU says it has received of firms seeking to increase their bottom lines without increasing staff numbers, by getting more work out of existing employees.

A possible explanation, the report states, is that it’s become harder for legal workers to insulate their home lives from the demands of an increasingly connected workplace, given the greater provision for working from home following the pandemic.

Neas says it’s not right that legal workers are being “squeezed” to increase profitability. “The average legal worker in New Zealand is working nearly a day for free each week. That’s six hours of work which the employer can bill to the client without paying for the work.

“This is happening in a context in which a significant number of legal workers continue to effectively be paid below the minimum wage or have seen pay cuts in real terms over the past two years because of inflation,” he says.

The report reveals the number of legal workers working for less than the minimum wage rose 50% in 2022, and junior lawyers’ median salaries have either fallen in real terms or have just kept up with inflation.

Rankings
Legal workers in private firms are the least satisfied with their pay and job, the survey also found.

Asked to rate their job satisfaction and other aspects out of 10, respondents gave an average overall rating of nearly seven. However, the rating varies significantly between workplaces. Across the large private law firms and Crown Law and the Ministry of Justice, the highest overall rating comes from ministry employees at 7.9, followed by Russell McVeagh (7.6), Dentons Kensington Swan (7.5), Crown Law (7.2), Chapman Tripp (6.7), Buddle Findlay and Meredith Connell (6.5), Duncan Cotterill (6.4), Simpson Grierson (6), and Bell Gully (4.4).

Bell Gully also scores the lowest satisfaction rating for hours worked (3.7) and workplace culture (2.9). In contrast, Dentons Kensington Swan respondents are most satisfied with hours worked (7.6). Russell McVeagh employees are the most satisfied with workplace culture (7.7) as well as pay (7.9). Crown Law respondents are the least satisfied with pay, with a rating of 2.9 out of 10. The law firm with the lowest pay satisfaction rating is Bell Gully (3.5).

Nearly half of the respondents report their work has had a negative impact on their mental health in the past year – a significant decrease from 2021, when nearly three-quarters reported their mental health had suffered because of work.

Again, significant variations exist between workplaces. Employees working at chambers or in non-governmental organisations are the most negatively affected (67%), closely followed by private firms with one to five partners (66%), then private in-house workers (57%). The least likely to report negative impacts are public sector workers (32%) and sole practitioners (33%).

Responses

eBulletin asked several large private law firms for their overall response to ALWU’s report and job satisfaction and well-being results.

Bell Gully didn’t respond directly to the report’s findings or the job satisfaction results. However, in a statement, the firm said it has several programs to recognise and reward, including a formal time-off-in-lieu policy, annual performance bonuses, monthly financial rewards and active management of workflows and leave.

Support is provided, including additional staff where required, to bolster existing staff. And its people are regularly engaged with on their mental health and well-being, including through surveys and development opportunities. Bell Gully was confident the surveys accurately reflected how employees felt about their workplace. “We are always looking at how we can improve the ways we support all members of our team, and that includes ongoing encouragement of open communication within the firm,” it said.

Similarly, Russell McVeagh didn’t respond directly to the report’s findings or the job satisfaction results. But in a statement, the firm said its extended hours policy guaranteed time off in lieu or catch-up days for people needing to work extended hours to meet client needs. The policy ensured staff were rested while giving management visibility and transparency over their work hours, to then make sure workloads were reduced where necessary.

In addition to having a range of well-being initiatives, the firm reviewed salaries each year. In 2022, all staff received an out-of-cycle 7.5% increase to their salaries, “to acknowledge that the last few years we have been operating in a challenging environment with the impacts of the pandemic and increasing cost of living”, Russell McVeagh said. “We know our people are critical to our success and appreciate their commitment to our clients and each other. We will continue to consider ways in which to support them.”

While Buddle Findlay didn’t respond directly to the report’s findings or the job satisfaction results, in a statement it said, “We pride ourselves in creating the best environment for [our people] to belong, thrive, and grow their careers”.

Regular engagement surveys provided “reliable and detailed” information on a range of workplace aspects, including remuneration, satisfaction and well-being. “The scores from our surveys place us ahead of industry benchmarks for professional services both in New Zealand and overseas,” it said.

Overtime wasn’t paid for every single hour worked above the industry standard of 37.5 hours a week, but it was acknowledged through time off in lieu, flexible work, vouchers, and other forms. “Our people are paid above the living wage at all times,” Buddle Findlay said. The 2022/23 living wage hourly rate is $23.65 and will rise nearly 10% to $26 an hour from September 2023.

Chapman Tripp, Simpson Grierson, and Duncan Cotterill were contacted but failed to respond.

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