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Yes, law firm culture is fucked. And nothing is going to change anytime soon

Anton Smith worked at big law firms for years, and welcomes signs the profession wants to change their workplace culture. But, he warns, without a massive industry shift any plans for improvement are doomed to fail.

While I wholeheartedly support Sarah Mitchell’s recent advice to young lawyers in The Spinoff, better coping strategies won’t fix the underlying issue. And big law firms will not transform into good places to work without a sea change in attitudes.

I am a Pākeha male who was lucky enough to get a great education and go to law school. I have a lot of privilege, and privilege attracts power. I worked for fantastic lawyers who gave me a profound appreciation for what it means to act in the best interests of my clients. And yet, even that privilege and power did not shield me from the sting of poor industry culture.

I have worked literally 21 hours straight. I have had a colleague slide their (unwanted and unexpected) hand up my back under my shirt as I was bending over to refill the printer. I have been told by a senior lawyer not to ‘get [my wife] pregnant’ as I was about to leave for a holiday.

This is not rare. It is the norm, and those with less privilege and less power are far more susceptible to this kind of behaviour (and, as we have learned, far worse).

You might be thinking that someone who has experienced what I have, and and who has heard about a lot more, would have been tripping over himself to apply for a spot on the cultural change taskforce the New Zealand Law Society is setting up.

I wasn’t and I didn’t.

The New Zealand Law Society finally wants to drive change and is taking steps to try. It is admirable. However, it is doomed to fall well short of what is needed unless it gets the sway and the tools to address the root causes of the workplace culture everyone is talking about.

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After leaving law firms and shifting into a great corporate environment, I have been lucky enough to undergo high performance culture training with an exceptional ‘corporate anthropologist’. There are so many lessons for law firms in anthropology and understanding the true value of organisational culture, and I encourage anyone interested in driving change in the industry to start by looking to anthropology. Unfortunately, from what I have learned and seen in action, plans to change law firm culture are going nowhere. Why?

1. A culture forms in any group of people and starts with that group’s beliefs. For example, if a group of people who work together believe that making money and being the best are the only goals, their behaviour will be geared towards making the most money and being the best – creating a culture where those things take almost always take priority. It’s a culture often characterised by winning at all costs, fear, blame and denial – even in firms where there are some great senior lawyers who fight tooth and nail to prevent that. Culture is what the group as a whole cares about, so a law firm needs to completely re-think what each person cares about in order to drive a culture of support, trust and fun.

2. The tasks required of lawyers – perhaps best characterised as a healthy level of cynicism or scepticism, directed to achieve their clients’ best interests – too often seep into the way lawyers interact at work. We might get paid to be cynical, but that doesn’t mean that we can or should approach our colleagues or the workplace in that way.

3. Culture change requires courage, right at the top and across the board. Where’s the impetus for that courage? The Russell McVeagh scandal certainly hasn’t been enough and, frankly, Dame Margaret Bazley’s report is proof of that.

Sure, these are generalisations. Perhaps culture sounds like ‘soft and fluffy’ stuff. I challenge that. This is about human interaction, plain and simple. Even if our organisations only cared about the bottom line, those organisations will never grow without cultures that are stable as a minimum. This is especially true for an industry that literally deals in human time.

And let’s call a spade a spade. Right now, law firm cultures are dysfunctional or dying.

What would actually move the needle? Let me suggest some first steps in this sea change I am calling for. They are simple and take cues from other industries.

1. Agree, and strictly enforce, a 8-hour work day.

2. If a junior lawyer’s employment contract requires them to do extra work ‘as and when required outside of contracted hours’ (and most do), pay them over-time.

3. Adopt a business structure with distinct management, governance and ownership; the usual separation of powers.

4. Strictly enforce pay equity.

5. Empower law firm HR teams to take decisive steps against bullying and harassment, including giving a partner/owner ‘the boot’.

6. Offer flexible working for everyone.

7. Require all partners/owners to undergo at least one year’s part-time intensive management training. They might know the law but they often do not know how to manage people safely and elevate culture.

8. Change the expectation that lawyers in #biglaw work all night or on weekends (or, if you do and you are a client, be prepared to pay #bigbucks for that sacrifice). Senior lawyers must set the example that a life outside the office is healthy, normal and necessary to career success.

9. Listen to and promote lawyers and former lawyers calling for change in Aotearoa, like Zoë Lawton, Catriona MacLennan, Khylee Quince and Olivia Wensley.

10. Change regulation to support new ways of working, like freelancing, to allow experienced lawyers to set up shop outside of big firms if that is what they want to do.

This must be the starting point for our decision-makers and those who will seek to influence them, like the Law Society.

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Are you someone with power in the law or in other industries who can actually drive change? Did you feel when you were a young lawyer or professional that something needed to change, but could do nothing about it at the time? Now you can. This is what is urgently required and it is time to step up.

My detractors will argue the legal industry is different. That what is required to shift the needle is unrealistic. That young law graduates know what they are getting themselves into, or that this is the best and fastest way for them to learn.

If that is true, big law firms will slowly start to fail.

If that were true, my peers and I would not be receiving a constant stream of emails, LinkedIn messages and phone calls from legal recruiters seeking junior lawyers for the growing avalanche of vacancies. Turnover in the legal industry is only going to continue getting worse if we do not shift the needle.

Considering human time remains the core input of a legal service, if any other industry was dealing with its suppliers like law firms do – literally harassing and stretching them to breaking point – we would call that industry dead and move on. Why should law firms be immune?

A cynic might suggest these changes to shift the needle are worth pushing for if only to make sure #biglaw can keep making the #bigbucks. An optimist might say shifting the needle would allow the legal industry to thrive, innovate and add far more value to Aotearoa than it currently does.

Let’s get a grip and be honest about what is wrong with the legal industry and what it would take to fix it. Do not accuse us of mincing words. Young lawyers in firms know what they need from those in power in order to continue working there.

The question is who will take up the call to action junior lawyers are silently screaming for?

 

*The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of the author’s employers.

Anton Smith is an in-house lawyer and co-founder of legal marketplace consensus.nz.

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