The right culture - what does this mean and how can we shape the culture for the future?

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Andrea Kennedy
11KBW, London

Up until spring of 2020, stories abounded in the legal and lay press about the toxic culture in the legal profession. Mental health issues were on the rise, bullying and harassment were all too common, and lawyers were working to the point of burnout. They were literally using themselves up, and they were being let loose on clients.

Then came the pandemic. Overnight we were all working from home. Did law firm culture change, and if so, how? Are things better or worse? This session explored these issues from different perspectives: the young lawyer, the female lawyer, the senior lawyer and the sole practitioner in a developing country.

The session started provocatively by asking the audience to pretend they were in hospital for a minor procedure. The doctor who was going to perform the procedure introduced themselves and explained that they had under-slept, were overworked, suffering from depression, in a collapsing marriage, abusing alcohol and drugs, never saw their children and felt undervalued by their superiors. They then asked if the patient had any questions about the procedure. It was suggested that the first question ought to be, ‘where do I find a different doctor?’

The session moderator, Andrea Kennedy, explained that this may be an exaggeration, but if reports in the legal and lay press were to be believed, this is how many lawyers were feeling before the pandemic. How did it serve the legal profession and how did it serve their clients?

But with the pandemic, did things change? Was the toxic culture that pervaded many law firms around the world tied to the office, or was it intrinsic in the profession itself? Was there something about being a lawyer that made us susceptible to the bad behaviour that was being reported on a regular basis?

Liat Kiesary, partner at Barnea in Tel Aviv, spoke about the changes from a female lawyer’s perspective. Before the pandemic working from home at her firm was not actively encouraged. But since the pandemic flexibility is the name of the game. While this was welcome, the billable hour targets have remained the same. This has hit female lawyers with children the hardest as they still tend to be the ones who carry the mental load of parenting. But it is not just women with children. Three women from her law firm have left the firm since the beginning of the pandemic.

This is not just happening at her firm. A report by McKinsey/Leanin in the United States suggests that one in four women are thinking of leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers. There is also a risk that, once we can all return to the office safely, more men will choose to return full-time than women, making the office a ‘men’s den’, thereby marginalising women lawyers.

Mariano Batalla, partner at Batalla in Costa Rica, spoke from the perspective of a young lawyer and introduced the audience to the concept of ‘skeuomorphism’. Skeuomorphism is a term most often used in graphical user interface design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. A well-known example is the recycle bin icon used for discarding files.

Applying this concept to the practice of law, Mariano warned lawyers against trying to replicate the office environment remotely. Don’t try to simulate office meetings or social occasions by simply moving them over to Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The dynamic is different. In the office, supervisors would not be regularly popping into the junior lawyer’s room to see if they were working, yet many young lawyers feel they now have to be ‘at their (home) desks’ at all times in case their boss thinks they are slacking off. Consequently, presenteeism continues in many firms, just in a different way, with lawyers actually working longer hours than before. Remote working should be seen as an opportunity to re-invent the workplace. It is an opportunity to build trust, autonomy and uninterrupted time.

Prem Narayan, a legal practitioner in Fiji, spoke about the difficulties she is facing having to work in a developing country where the internet is patchy at best. Remote working does not work in Fiji. You must be present. There is a lot of stress in terms of the courts not running, cases being deferred and then listed on another day with no notice. It creates a lot of stress for the lawyers and their clients. There is a degree of bullying by larger firms of smaller ones, usually because they are better-equipped to deal with remote working. And all this is compounded by the stress of dealing with a global pandemic.

Finally, Gary Assim, a partner at Shoosmiths in London and Co-Chair of the IBA Talent and Leadership Subcommittee, spoke from the perspective of a senior, mature lawyer. He said that the pandemic has put the culture and purpose of a law firm into hard focus. A strong, healthy culture is strongly interlinked with a firm’s profit and brand. He learned this having worked now in a firm that has been working remotely for over ten years. Working remotely has shown how these can easily become disconnected. Lawyers at his firm felt disconnected from the firm’s culture and brand the more they worked from home, so his firm took care and attention to ensure that they were listened to. The firm has an app where staff can anonymously air their views on anything relating to the firm. This platform was inundated at the beginning of the pandemic. Gone are the days when senior lawyers could say ‘this is how we did it in my day, so this is how we are going to do it now.’ The pandemic has been a game-changer in the way firms are, and should be run, and it would be a mistake to go back to the old days.


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