Sex and power: Can law change its cover up culture?

In the less than six months since Ronan Farrow published his explosive New Yorker expose on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, behaviour that would previously have been hushed up or talked about in whispers in the media and business world is now being exposed to the cold light of day.

The legal sector is no different and has seen a series of slowly unfolding scandals in the months since the Weinstein story broke and the #MeToo movement brought issues around power and sex to the top of the agenda. Last week, the fall of Bill Voge, chair of the world’s second richest law firm Latham & Watkins, showed that no one in the industry is too big or too powerful to escape accountability for their actions.

Read more: Law boss sent sex texts to woman he contacted through Christian group

Voge resigned last week after admitting that he sent explicit sexual texts to a woman he had contacted as part of a Christian outreach programme.

An endemic issue

A Latham partner who spoke to City A.M. says: “It was a total surprise, he was Latham for life, he was one of the firm’s top practitioners and then he replaced Robert Dell as chair. He was really charismatic and people thought very highly of him so this is totally unexpected.”

However, it is clear that Voge’s behaviour, while evidently not illegal or constituting sexual harassment, is part of a wider problem in the industry.

A recent survey by website Legal Week found that nearly two thirds of female lawyers who responded had experienced some sort of sexual harassment during their careers.

The legal sector, which has traditionally been male-dominated with a long-hours, and at times, a hard-drinking culture, has previously been willing to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment and other misbehaviour, particularly when involving big-billing partners.

A culture of silence

Stories circulate in the industry about which partner is a “top sha**er”, which partner got caught having sex with an associate in the firm’s offices and which partner indulged in group sex with prostitutes alongside one of his clients – to touch on just a few of the rumours and allegations alive in the London legal market.

Certain firms or practice groups carried notorious reputations. The banking practice of one magic circle firm was colloquially known as “the bonking practice” to reflect the sexual escapades of its partners.

Law firms have previously been guilty of covering up the actions of partners, paying off victims and using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to enforce silence.

Read more: Boss of world’s first $3bn law firm quits amid sex scandal

Another approach to sex scandals was to send the perpetrator into temporary exile. A stint in Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai was deemed enough to wipe the slate clean.

Finally, if a partner’s behaviour was too egregious they would quietly leave, normally ending up in a firm lower down the pecking order which was willing to overlook previous peccadilloes in exchange for a high-performing partner at a bargain price.

However, since Weinstein the culture seems to be changing. Firms are less willing to stand for behaviour that would previously have been hushed up.

Zero tolerance approach

Tamara Box, the London managing partner of US law firm Reed Smith, says: “As an industry we have had issues where we let money talk louder than our core values, but I do think that the climate is changing, whether because of #MeToo or time’s up or all the work being done around gender. There is an opportunity, and we are jumping on it, to say zero tolerance can work.”

Nakul Kapur, a legal recruiter with Seqouia Associates, says that firms are now taking issues around sexual harassment much more seriously than they used to.

“Law firms can no longer be seen to tolerate any questionable behaviour by their staff, senior or otherwise,” he says.

Legal watchdog the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has also weighed in issuing a warning notice this month on the use of NDAs to cover up serious misconduct which should be reported to either the police or the regulator.

The chief executive of the SRA Paul Philip says: “The public and the profession expects solicitors to act with integrity and uphold the rule of law. And most do. NDAs have a valid use, but not for covering up serious misconduct and in some cases potential crimes.”

Gus Sellitto of specialist legal public relations agency Byfield argues that the secretive partnership culture is now coming under pressure from changes in wider society.

“The partnership culture where you protect the partners at all costs is starting to change as a result of wider societal changes. We have seen it in the banking sector which has moved on from lapdancing in the 80s and now we are seeing a change in how people tolerate these kinds of behaviours in the legal sector,” he says.

Not the end of the story

Partners at global law firms Herbert Smith Freehills, Dentons and Mayer Brown have all been fired following sexual harassment allegations in recent weeks and it is evident that law firms are now taking the issue seriously.

While it seems hard to believe that another person of Voge’s stature will fall from grace in such a spectacular and humiliating fashion, it is clear that there will be more revelations to come as the legal sector moves to put its house in order.

Box says: “The realist in me says we know our profession did not escape the issue. Do I think we are done with rooting that out? I think that is optimistic, I think there will be a few more examples and then hopefully change will really take root.”

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