The culture of the Bar
This week, I had the privilege of speaking to those attending the Bar Readers’ Course about the culture of the Bar. This is the second of these presentations, in which I addressed how the Bar’s values influence and govern the conduct of barristers within our college.
I have written a number of times in In Brief about the culture the Bar is seeking to foster – about the need for the Bar to maintain a culture of excellence, respect, tolerance and inclusiveness, and the steps that the Bar Council is taking to reinforce this. This is important not only to build a strong and collegiate Bar for today’s members, but to ensure that those looking to join the Bar, those with whom we work across the profession, our clients and the public see the Bar as a respectful and inclusive organisation.
There are four particular areas on which the Bar Council has focused this year to further entrench these cultural attributes at the Bar, and I’d like to take the opportunity today to write about these, and the challenges that we need to overcome.
Sexual harassment – enough is enough
It is unfortunate that sexual harassment persists in the legal profession and at the Bar. In June 2020, the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner (VLSB+C) released a report on sexual harassment in the profession, in which one in three respondents to their survey reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, in most cases as recently as the preceding year. A culture of complicity and silence not only precludes victims and witnesses from coming forward, but also protects perpetrators.
The Bar is committed to stamping out sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in all their forms. Ideally, we will get to the point where the structures and measures we have in place to respond to such conduct when it occurs are effectively redundant. But in the meantime, we must tackle these issues at multiple levels.
In addition to the support the Bar already provides through counselling services and advice on avenues of complaint, the Bar Council is in the final stages of putting in place new policies that will provide a clear, straightforward path to report sexual misconduct. We will be sharing these with members shortly. We will also continue to underscore the importance of maintaining a safe working environment, promoting a culture whereby all people are treated with mutual respect, and ensuring that members can identify instances of sexual harassment or other poor conduct, and are supported in their individual responsibility to call it out and stamp it out. The Hon. Ken Hayne AC QC led by example with his webinar with Jenny Firkin QC, Chair of the Bar’s Equality and Diversity Committee, and Helen Rofe QC, Bar Councillor, last week (available for members to view here). We need thought leaders across our Bar to help drive the evolution of our culture and behaviours in this area.
We’ve also been working with Dr Helen Szoke AO who is heading the review into sexual harassment in the Victorian legal system to build a culture that prevents sexual harassment, gives victims and witnesses the confidence to speak up and call out sexual harassment whenever it occurs across the profession. Anyone who has experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a Victorian court or tribunal is invited to share their stories here.
I’ve also called for expressions of interest for members who are interested in joining roundtable discussions as part of the review, so that we have a collaborative approach to find pathways to engage all the various constituencies at the Bar and in the profession to address the cultural impediments to change. Members should see the notice, below, if they would like to join. EOIs close on 22 October.
Professional education at the Bar
The 2018 State of the Victorian Bar Report highlighted that barristers’ practices are under sustained, competitive pressure – and the current COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these external environmental challenges. Providing a world-class, best-practice professional education program is critical to ensuring that members meet the evolving needs of clients by appropriately upskilling in not only substantive legal developments, but also in future business, technological and cultural trends that will affect their practices.
I would again like to thank all the members who have contributed to the extensive consultation process around the Education Review and we look forward to engaging with members further about the implementation plans as they evolve.
Our relationships at the Bar
The formal mentoring relationship between a Reader and his or her mentor is a critical foundation for practice, and it is a relationship which can endure throughout a barrister’s career. The informal networks at the Bar are also important – the camaraderie, advice and support we give one another equip us to survive and flourish in what can often be an isolating profession. The Mentoring Pilot we launched last month is another of the vehicles that will empower future generations, help share experiences across the Bar, and embed a vibrant and respectful culture at the Bar. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive responses from participants in the pilot, and I hope that we can use the learnings from that project to elevate mentoring and strengthen informal networks for the benefit of all.
Members’ health and wellbeing
Finally, the Bar can’t be strong and successful without mental and physically healthy members. I’m delighted that the new Health and Wellbeing Portal is close to realisation, and that we are working with psychologist, Sandy Rea, designer of the COVID Capsule mental health webinars and the Health and Wellbeing Committee, on developing barrister-specific content to ensure that members can easily access information to help them with their personal and professional challenges.
I’d like to remind members that they can access the Bar’s counselling services: Re-Vision Group on 9650 5540 or Converge International on 1300 687 327. Consultations are free and confidential.
The success of our Bar family will depend upon how we can evolve to meet the needs and aspirations of current members and future generations of barristers, so we remain a college that is a respectful, inclusive, safe and enjoyable environment in which to work.