Jacque Lethbridge was elected president of the New Zealand Law Society in April. Photo / Supplied
Law Society president Jacque Lethbridge has resigned after a critical culture review found she behaved in a way which some employees experienced as “aggressive and irrational”.
The report, by former Solicitor-General Mike Heron KC, says Lethbridge was genuinely well motivated and did not intend to cause the consequences that occurred.
However, “the behaviour was inappropriate and described as unreasonable for a person in the position of president”.
Lethbridge – who took a leave of absence from the role in August – issued a statement saying she acknowledged the findings and that her genuine motivation had been to make a difference in the role of president and achieve her goals.
“Those goals have been to champion the interests of the legal profession and to effect much needed change,” Lethbridge said.
“In the short time I was in the role of president, I did the very best I could in that particular environment to achieve those goals.
“I am reflecting on how my approach and communication style – which is without doubt direct and exacting – has been the experience of some in that environment.”
The Law Society commissioned Heron to carry out an independent culture review of the organisation after “allegations regarding behaviour concerns” emerged earlier this year.
In a statement this afternoon, society vice president David Campbell said the report was commissioned “against a backdrop of a breakdown in the relationship between the president and the then chief executive of the Law Society”.
“Mr Heron KC reported that on balance, considering all the statements and submissions
received, the president behaved in a manner which some employees experienced as aggressive and irrational,” Campbell said.
“While Mr Heron found that the president was genuinely well motivated and did not intend the consequences that occurred, the behaviour was inappropriate and described as unreasonable for a person in the position of president.”
Heron’s report findings suggest some confusion between the roles of president and chief executive at the Law Society.
His recommendations include a delegated authority policy clarifying the relationship between the board and CEO – and a job description for the president to be endorsed by the board and council.
“The board accepts the report and will be working with the executive leadership team to act on the recommendations made by Mr Heron KC, as an additional part of the wider transformation work plan that is already underway,” Campbell said.
“The acting executive director has also received the resignation of Jacque Lethbridge as
president effective immediately.
“A new president will be appointed by the council shortly.”
Lethbridge confirmed she had resigned as Law Society president.
“I am heartened to see from the board’s statement that it has undertaken to address significant cultural issues within NZLS which surfaced in a staff engagement survey conducted in April 2022 as recommended by Mr Heron KC.
“I am returning to focus fully on my practice, as Mr Heron KC noted, his commentary has no bearing on my legal ability. I would like to thank my firm and colleagues for their steadfast support during what can only be described as a challenging time.”
In July the Herald reported that Lethbridge had front-footed allegations of “behaviour concerns” when she confirmed she was at the centre of the claims.
However Lethbridge, who was elected president in April of the regulatory body that oversees the conduct of 15,000 New Zealand lawyers, strongly denied the unspecified allegations.
She also said she fully backed an independent “culture review” of the organisation that had been launched in response to the accusations, “including those raised directly by me”.
An unattributed statement appeared on the society’s website in July saying “allegations regarding behaviour concerns at the New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa” had surfaced in the media.
“The concerns do not relate to the behaviour of Law Society staff, the Vice-Presidents, or any former President,” the statement read.
“While no complaint of bullying has been received, in response to concerns raised we have commissioned a broad-based culture review of the organisation. This review will be undertaken by Mike Heron QC.”
The statement said it was important that every New Zealander had trust and confidence in the society as a regulator and as advocate for the legal profession.
“We owe duties of confidence and cannot comment further but we will be as transparent as is permissible.”
In response, Lethbridge – a senior commercial litigator and partner at a top Auckland law firm – issued her own statement at the time.
“In response to a media report, the Law Society issued a statement confirming that no complaints of bullying or harassment had been received, noting that some behaviour concerns had been raised.
“Who may have been the target of some of those alleged concerns has caused confusion.
“I wish to make it plain that I am the person being referred to in that statement and that I deny the concerns raised.
“I participated in and fully supported the full Board’s decision to initiate a broad-based review of the NZLS working culture being undertaken by Mike Heron QC which will be addressing all concerns including those raised directly by me. I look forward to fully participating in it.”
Since being elected president in April, she said her platform had been one of fairness and transparency.
“I strongly believe the reputation of our profession and our organisation can only be enhanced and benefit from a clear, open and fair approach.”
In July, Justice Minister Kiri Allan told the Herald she was aware of the matter but had not sought a briefing or explanation from the Law Society.
Speaking generally, Allan said: “Bullying and harassment is never acceptable, ever. As Minister of Justice I expect high standards of lawyers and I expect the body responsible for regulating the conduct of lawyers to uphold the same, if not higher, standards.
“A review has been commissioned and if would be inappropriate for me to comment while that process is under way.”
Lethbridge – who began practising in 2004 – has worked on several high-profile legal cases.
In 2017 she headed a successful paternity case against former Auckland mayor and police minister John Banks.
Her client Antony Shaw took High Court proceedings asking a judge to declare that Banks was his birth father.
The court agreed, ruling that Banks was Shaw’s paternal father and declaring the pair were next of kin.
She also represented SkyCity during the prosecution of Tessa Grant, who was jailed for seven years in 2017 for ripping off the casino company and a Hamilton school for $2.77 million.
An online bio for Lethbridge says she has a reputation for “robust, focused, dynamic and effective advocacy and legal representation”.
“She specialises in commercial and civil litigation with a focus on insolvency and restructuring and also has experience in regulatory and serious fraud cases.
“She regularly represents high-profile individuals and commercial organisations both in New Zealand and internationally with complex, contentious and often unique legal problems.”
Lethbridge has held various board positions and served as a council member of the Auckland Branch Council, the Auckland Standards Committee and the Auckland District Law Society.