The interns & the law firm

Russell McVeagh report makes for ‘savage reading’

Having read Dame Margaret Bazley's report into Russell McVeagh, leading employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg says every aspect of the way the sexual assault allegations of that dreadful summer of 2015/16 were handled comes in for criticism, and deservedly so.

Today Dame Margaret’s report (or as I like to call it, What I Have Been Telling them for 27 Years) is released to the public. The firm has had a general briefing, which evidently reduced several of the partners to tears. Well they might weep: the report makes for savage reading. The findings are a catalogue of a munted management, human resource and cultural structure. Every aspect of the way the sexual assault allegations of that dreadful summer of 2015/16 were handled comes in for criticism, and deservedly so. These were young, inexperienced and vulnerable people, brought into the firm for a summer of fun and a bit of work experience. The people charged with caring for them failed them miserably, and continued to do so for 2 ½ years. That experience changed these women’s lives, and those of their friends, in the worst way.

Warning signs were there to be seen: this could and should have been prevented. The lack of focus on the wellbeing of the summer clerks by mostly smart, caring people is impossible to fathom. It looks like callous disregard. What the hell happened?

The wider cultural and management issues that contributed to this disaster are articulated by Dame Margaret, who in my view mostly nailed it. To paraphrase: professional management and HR which kept the partners at arm’s length from their accountabilities for employees, lacked skills and focussed on protecting the income stream and the brand, rather than the people. A work hard, play hard mentality fuelled by unlimited booze. Poor leadership skills and bad time, work and people management. Residual sexism and a blokey lexicon. Treating young people like cannon fodder. Making them work all hours and not caring about their health and wellbeing, i.e. exploiting them.

More fundamentally, although she does not use these words, Dame Margaret calls the firm out for a corporate DNA of arrogance and elitism. That really gets to the heart of the question everyone will be asking: why? Why has a firm that prides itself on hiring and promoting the best and brightest, has money to pay for the best training, resources and management expertise, and counts New Zealand’s biggest corporates amongst its clients retained an archaic, dysfunctional, unsafe and unhealthy working environment? Why did it get this so wrong?

"It’s out in the open: it will be a case of do the work, or demolish the place."

The Russell McVeagh which Dame Margaret’s report describes is one I recognise all too well: it has barely changed in the 20 years since I left. The “way we did things around here” delivered huge benefits for those at the top, so why change it? If you genuinely believe you are the best, you work incredibly hard and you share in the spoils of the relentless work of everyone in the business, that is a powerful incentive to maintain the status quo. Abdicating the majority of your management and pastoral care responsibilities to professionals, but incentivising the wrong things was a recipe for disaster.

What is alarming is what it has taken for the partners to wake up and see what everyone else knew (it is called the Factory in the industry for a reason). The very recent improvements: the Rainbow tick, more female partners, flexibility and so forth seem like responses to corporate clients’ expectations, rather than the sign of an epiphany.

The media and a pile of very courageous young people had to rip the lid off the problem. Even then, the firm misled, minimised, reassured and belatedly PR’ed its way through. Rolled out a woman who confidently (but wrongly, as it transpired) assured us all there was nothing to see here, who the blokes hid behind. To quote Pretty Woman: big, big mistake.

The blueprint Dame Margaret and her team have handed the firm is a re-build from the ground up. It’s out in the open: it will be a case of do the work, or demolish the place. Those who choose to stay will have to roll their sleeves up and get the professionals in. Some of those people do seem to have got with the programme, finally. They need to be a force for change and it feels like they want to be.

The rest of the legal profession can and must learn from this report and Dame Margaret has gone there. No large firm should be smugly thinking “thank god it’s not us”. No legal employer should fail to ask itself, and crucially, its people, “are we anything like this; are you ok?” The themes are the same as those spelled out in Josh Pemberton’s report, the surveys conducted by the Criminal Bar and the Law Society, Zoe Lawton’s blog, Olivia Wensley’s clarion calls, the anecdotal evidence of hundreds of us. The Law Society is finally with the programme, but has a lot of ground to recover and must regain the profession’s, the public’s and the Minister’s trust.

The profession was already reeling after the awful survey results, but we are still hearing too many people challenging the scientific rigour of the data and muttering “not all men”. Yes, we know, not all men (and not just the men): but enough. And if we don’t fix it, like the Russell McVeagh partners, we are all complicit.

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