Law firm culture is still a ‘Brotopia’

Last week the Newsroom website broke the story of incidents involving alleged harassment of female summer clerks at the major law firm Russell McVeagh, and this paper yesterday had more revelations about goings-on at “the Factory”.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck was interviewed on National Radio and said it should be really clear in workplaces that certain behaviour is simply unacceptable. You don’t make inappropriate suggestions to your staff, you don’t make lewd jokes, you don’t stand too close “and you certainly don’t touch them”.

She said work functions should only go to a certain time, intoxication levels should be monitored and there should be rules creating a culture where this sort of behaviour is simply unacceptable.

She also pointed out sexual harassment happens in many workplaces, not just law firms.


On one level, you can’t argue with any of that. But on another level it’s simply, well, crap.

Because there is actually something different about law firms. And unless that changes, you can have all the training courses, protocols, procedures and HR brouhaha you like, but the arseholeyness will continue. Because it’s baked in.

You need to understand the major law firms are run by a unique breed of people – head boys, usually – who have spent decades sweating, bleeding and brown-nosing to get where they are. They have had to put aside their individuality, their gentler natures, their non-approved outside hobbies that take too much time, their more unconventional parts which don’t fit in this gladiatorial arena, a lot of their home lives.

They have had to subscribe wholeheartedly to the religion of winning. Not just winning, but winning at all costs. They have been brutalised.

So by the time they make it to partner, they have sacrificed much. And now they think they are gods. They are treated like gods. And until their god-like status is destroyed, the men (and they are still mostly men) will carry on Voldemorting around. In fact, it is precisely this kind of predatory dog-eat-dog behaviour which got them to where they are, so good luck telling them to put their fangs away now.

In top law firms, those who succeed have spent decades being told over and over they are especially clever and that their advancement comes from their own merits. No wonder they develop a sense of righteousness, and in the most unattractive cases, smugness, that comes from believing they have morality and virtue on their side. After all, they got into this elite club through their own hard work and aptitude, didn’t they? (They didn’t, actually, it’s way more complicated than that, but don’t expect them to see that.)

In her excellent book Brotopia, journalist Emily Chang argues for breaking up another elite boy’s club – Silicon Valley – but the criticisms she directs at the so-called “meritocracy” of tech firms would seem to be writ even larger at law firms.

As Chang argues, a meritocracy is always based on an imperfect definition of merit and often narrowly defined to favour training, connections and education primarily available to the wealthy. Networks like this may not be dynastic, but they are very hard to get into once they are established.

So despite more women lawyers coming out of law schools, the entitled frat boy culture persists. Misogyny, male dominance and exclusion of anyone outside the group continues with impunity.

The underlying culture is rotten. So it ain’t going to be fixed by calling in the clipboard carriers of the HR department. You can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking which created it. (Thanks Einstein.)

So the law society piously advocates that functions should finish at a certain time and there should be no intoxication and more rules. That may be not just naïve, but wrong-headed.

Some researchers in the US have found that HR training to avoid sexual harassment can backfire and even make the problem worse. Justine Tinkler, a sociologist, says that is because the training tends to portray men as powerful and sexually insatiable and women as vulnerable. Training was least effective with people who equated masculinity with power. In other words, the men who were probably more likely to be harassers were the ones who were least likely to learn anything.

Anyway, HR’s tick-the-boxes approach doesn’t address what really drives our decision making.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that what drives our behaviour is our mindset, which precedes our conscious rationality. Our emotions drive our decisions about how we behave, with reason no more than an after-the-fact justification.

So it’s not enough to just prescribe behaviours, as the Law Society recommends. If you want change, you need to change the mindset that drives behaviour, and the mindset is the story we tell ourselves.

The story which law firm partners are told, and learn to tell themselves, is that they are special and got where they are on their own merits. If you want to change, they need to replace that entitled story with one that fundamentally changes how they think about power and human relationships.

Of course, the entire industry as we know it could be heading for the scrap heap if an Uber-for-lawyers disrupter turns it upside down. Guess there won’t be so many intoxicating law firm social functions then.

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