For those of you who have not been a junior in a large corporation, it’s reasonably easy to describe them as coal chucked by the shovelful into a fire for an enormous turbine. That turbine consists of the profits and overheads of the partnership.
They are also places of the most enormous power disparity; as the partners and senior associates drive their sleek mobile wonders into the underground car parks, faces fresh from the gym and with pretty much every societal privilege known to humanity sustaining them, there is no lack of clarity about the place of juniors in this set of strata. The young are there to work for almost-free, to enable the seniors and partners to bill cumulative hours towards very optimistic targets. Most of those partners have to pay to get to partnership – and within the partnership there is a really clear hierarchy of juniors and seniors themselves in both cost and reward. Such partners regularly die young.
We don’t have to forget that Russell McVeagh is New Zealand’s Goldman Sachs. On deals done it is the most powerful professional services entity in New Zealand and has been so for over a century. In terms of the allocation of capital around New Zealand, Russel McVeagh has no equal other than Parliament. With that prestige and power, it is the entry point to the most senior ranks of money and privilege that we have. As a partner there, when you walk into any boardroom you carry significant power. Getting to work there is getting into the dream, however you describe the dreams of being elite, meritocratic, tough, commercial, and willing to work and endure a whole bunch in order to get rich and get partnership. It’s up, or out.
This culture got exposed this week through Dame Margaret Bazeley’s findings. Here’s a taster:
First, I found that in the past Russell McVeagh had a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture that involved excessive drinking and in some instances crude, drunken, and sexually inappropriate behaviour. Junior lawyers and other young staff were encouraged to drink to excess. After the incidents the firm moved decisively to address these issues and began to change the culture. Two and a half years later, during my review, I was not told of any recent instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or alcohol fuelled misbehaviour.
Second, in reviewing the firm’s response to the incidents I found failings in the firm’s governance, structure, management, policies, standards, and systems, as well as the lack of a code of conduct. These failings contributed to the poor management of the incidents of 2015-16. I found that there was no-one in charge in the Wellington office, the team within which the incidents occurred was out of control, and what was happening in that team was not noticed by the partners or brought to the attention of the Board.
Third, as part of my broader review of the firm’s culture I was surprised to hear of pockets of bullying, poor work management practices resulting in excessive work hours for junior lawyers, and fear among lawyers and partners about the potential consequences of speaking out. A recent survey of all lawyers by the New Zealand Law Society revealed that bullying and harassment are problems across the entire legal profession. This does not minimise the reality of what has occurred at Russell McVeagh, but means the firm is not alone in needing to confront these issues. To its credit, the firm has not shied away from the problems, and has moved to act immediately to address them.
Fourth, although nearly 30 percent of partners are women and progress has been made with gender equality, many talented women lawyers still leave the firm rather than progressing to partnership. This is disappointing and a big loss for the firm.
Progress has also been made in the LGBTTI and diversity areas, but ongoing work is required to address sexism and unconscious bias. I consider any form of discrimination against women to be a serious issue because it inhibits the change that is needed to achieve the complete elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Fifth, cultural change of the magnitude contemplated by this review takes persistent and consistent effort to embed. Building on the work the firm has already begun, it is imperative that the Board, Chief Executive, and every partner are committed to the proposed transformation of the firm’s culture and that they have a 10-year plan to implement, monitor, and audit the change.
As law graduates have become majority female in recent years, some policies and practices have softened. But it will remain the most incredibly hard environment in which to work. From this report there may well be further splits of the Russel McVeigh partnership into smaller competing firms who often specialise in niche legal fields.
But don’t be fooled into thinking just because they are rich and powerful, that they are the only place this kind of evil resides. It’s across the profession.
As the NZLS showed in April this year in a major study, it’s across the place. They’ve known about it for years. Lawyers in New Zealand function as our largest and most powerful self-regulated gang chapter, and within it women get a pretty hard time of it. The female support networks have softened this, but the implied code of entry is still strong.
Sexism and bullying in the legal profession is not going to be completely eliminated. Even with changes, at the highest and most powerful legal practice in the land, the continuing test will be to retain profit, regain prestige and deal-flow, regain access to those juniors for feeding into the turbine, and making the place sufficiently attractive to women to work in that the machine of partnership keeps turning.
But done well, this could cause as great a revolution within the legal industry as the health and safety legislation did for the construction and forestry industry. Done badly, the internal revenge will be terrifying.