Raising the Bar – the art exhibition aiming to change the law

The legal profession has long been a terrible place for women. Auckland lawyer-turned-artist Judith Milner is staging an exhibition she hopes will help change that.

In 2018, when news broke of sexual assault and harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh, followed by a stream of reports and stories of behaviour as bad or worse at firms across the country, Law Society President Kathryn Beck described the profession as being in “cultural crisis”.

That the law was not a great place for women to work was not news to women in the profession in 2018. Two years earlier, law graduate Josh Pemberton had released a report into the experiences of junior lawyers, including quotes like this, from a woman who worked at a top-tier firm: “I was objectified, I was sexually harassed by clients. I saw sexual harassment, and worse, within the firm.” Another respondent said of her firm, “Female employees are referred to as ‘battery hens’, and disparaging comments about other female practitioners (including judges) are common. These include comments about women being ‘on their period’.”

A few months after the Russell McVeagh scandal broke, the Legal Workplace Environment Survey showed that nearly a third of female lawyers had been sexually harassed during their working life. On the release of the survey, Beck said, “We are failing to keep our own people safe and we cannot stand for this.”

With the Russell McVeagh story bringing these issues clearly into the public eye, firms were forced to confront sexual harassment, discrimination and gender bias in ways they had long avoided. But the problems were too deeply rooted to be fixed by the mere commissioning of reports and subsequent adoption of some of their recommendations.

Women make up 61 per cent of lawyers who work in firms with more than one practitioner, but less than 31 per cent of partners or directors in those same firms. They are paid less than men and they’re recognised less frequently than men. Of 110 Queens Counsel appointed since 2002, 26 are women. Asked in the Pemberton report if they considered their gender had any bearing on their prospects or future in the legal profession, 67 per cent of women respondents said yes. Of those working at big firms, that number rose to 73.

University of Auckland senior law lecturer Anna Hood says: “I think the individual stories around sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are horrendous, and they rightly should be talked about and addressed. But, in addressing that, I think it is more than just thinking about the individual cases and it really is thinking about the systems and hierarchies of power that exist in the profession, which really creates the environment and the culture where forms of discrimination and harassment can occur. So I think trying to delve below and look at what are the systems of governance and management in the profession and what are the economic models and things, down to how we bill clients and remunerate lawyers. It all feeds into a system that can create the conditions where it’s easy for people to be exploited.”

How do you change a deeply embedded structural imbalance like the one we see in the law? It takes time and it takes work but does it take painting? Put another way: what is the importance of art in making social change?

For 12 years Judith Milner worked as a lawyer, including for Russell McVeagh. She had always had a passion for painting but only made it her career after having her first child. Raising the Bar is her first solo exhibition.

“The legal profession is one that stands for equity and justice, and it needs to be diverse. These lawyers are the people that write legislation, interpret legislation, and so we are a diverse society, and we need the legal profession to reflect that,” she says.

The 16 women Milner chose to paint deliberately represent a wide range of ages and ethnicities, and are painted in a variety of poses, often in settings that are meaningful to them.

Hood recalls the day she arrived at the law school to find the walls of one of the meeting rooms lined with portraits of male judges. After protests from faculty, the portraits were eventually taken down. “But there’s a very strong tradition of that,” she says. “I think when you have portraits up like that, they set a tone for what is the norm. What are people’s aspirations? What is expected? And it can be quite subtle in a way, but what we see is what we absorb and I think not just the individual’s idea of having males in positions of power within the profession, but also potentially the norms and values that are associated with masculinity. So I think having an exhibition where we have portraits of women helps to start shifting some of those expectations and perhaps some of the aspirations.

“I think art in general is incredibly helping us to reflect on all manner of things, providing a critique, providing a space to contemplate and perhaps see things differently.”

Milner says, “We see so many images of women and they are usually idealised, beautiful women. And I felt like this was an opportunity to showcase women for their achievements. And I guess, as a mother of young girls, I think it’s really important that we see women for what they’ve done and not just for how they look.

Although her exhibition is a clear critique and rebuke of the way the law has worked to marginalise women, Milner doesn’t want to focus on the past.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who hadn’t experienced discrimination in some form or another. But I really want to focus more on the positive aspects and the women who, despite what the culture and the places they’ve worked have been like, they’ve gone on and done these amazing things.

“Certain people have had plenty of air time already. Let’s look at these women because they’re the ones that are doing the amazing stuff, rather than focusing on some people who have not conducted themselves in a very appropriate way.”

Raising the Bar will run from April 6-May 5 at Studio One Toi Tū, in Grey Lynn.

Source: Read Full Article