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Dame Margaret And The Silence of the Silos

Dame Margaret And The Silence of the Silos
John Bowie*

Dame Margaret Bazley must be getting tired of hauling lawyers into line. First the car boot operators playing up their game in South Auckland and elsewhere and now dealing with BigLaw's big hanging dickheads. And after dealing with the most Type-A male bastions of all, the cops with their ingrained culture of misogynism and bawdy bad-assing behaviour following the Louise Nicholas travesties, she's certainly got street cred on these matters.

And so it has proven as her report castigates the law firm sitting atop New Zealand's corporate law heap. There but for the grace of God go the rest of them. Not to mention those in corporate life, medicine, the military, education . . and most every other bigger law firm in town too. As Dame Margaret observed at her packed news conference, the lawyers elsewhere are scrambling to examine and re-write their HR policies on everything from harassment to hair appointments.

Not that Russell McVeagh necessarily drew the short straw in all this. They became the poster boys - and girls, even - of our homegrown #Metoo movement.
The debacle was not so much mismanaged as unmanaged. They sat on a ticking bomb as the counter ran down but let's not for a moment think they were the only ones who have fallen short when it comes to handling issues involving starry-eyed interns bending over backwards or forwards to please.

Of course nothing would quite satisfy the Sisterhood in this tacky reality drama. They castigate the good Dame for glossing over Russell McVeagh's transgressions and failures by paying attention to alcohol and 'work hard play hard', rather than reporting matters to the Law Society, an obligation the firm avoided.

Even if Dame Margaret had suggested compulsory castration of every male over 30 in every major law firm, there would be an argument that she had never specified the use of a blunt instrument.

The Law Society hardly emerge unscathed, either. It's late-to-the-party mea culpa doesn't sit comfortably.

Privacy Protection

The provisions of the Privacy Act are a blessing for those seeking camouflage from these matters. Protecting the victims and praising their heroism in the face of assault is wearing a little thin when one hears it pronounced about 1400 times.

If everyone was so concerned about the victims, then why was nothing done about the offenders?

And how can naming any offenders, who everyone and His Mother seem to know, in any way lead to the identification of their apparent victims?

The Rules of the Game

The Bazley report did however outline some rules that most any law firm of any size, quite apart from most other organisations, might wish to take on board. After all, the onrush of sexual abuse accusations has now become an almost daily occurrence rippling away from Russell McVeagh's media epicentre.

This week alone we've had the Navy, the Wellington City Council and others who have had their 'toxic cultures' exposed. This will be a continuum that will doubtless conclude about the time hell freezes over.

The Culture of the Silos

The operation of teams and silos in large law firms is a structural issue that no amount of cultural change will likely render any realistic change.

Lawyers working in high-stress, high paying environments reward themselves with the spas and bars and boasts of fee target successes is all in the nature of the Big Law beast. Talk about controlling booze and reckless banter at the office parties goes so far - but not much further. The problem in part for Russell McVeagh and most other large law firms is that times are a'changing but their business model is not.

The business is highly commercial. Fee levels are declining and legal services are being increasingly commoditised through the development of new technologies and increased competition. The global trend towards corporate legal services will further hammer the traditional partnership setup.

Meanwhile, the partnerships will be taking Dame Margaret's words on board. There will be a re-emphasis upon "zero tolerance" of sexual harassment (if I hear those words again I'll contribute to Harvey Weinstein's defense fund). But they will be burning the midnight updating their staff policies, their summer internships and also taking into Dame Margaret's '360 degree' appraisal of partners to make sure they measure up to more than reaching fee targets, but also have some nous on handling staff without behaving like dicks.

Good luck with all that.

*John Bowie publishes and its New Zealand edition.

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