Bakers' South Africa management contemplates the latest hire.
Baker McKenzie's Johannesburg office was run by an old boy's club which "bullied", "demeaned" and "degraded" those who worked there, former staff have told RollOnFriday.
The firm has vowed to overhaul the office's management, a week after RollOnFriday revealed that Morne van der Merwe, the firm's erstwhile South Africa Managing Partner, had stepped down from the role.
Baker McKenzie announced that "the global leadership team has been carefully reviewing issues relating to the management of our Johannesburg office for several months", and said there would be "a change in leadership" at the nine-year-old office.
Without providing an explanation for the upheaval or naming individuals, it said "we are in the process of implementing change in management, as well as appointing a new HR lead".
Bakers said it would also be "listening to and reviewing people’s concerns", and insisted that "the firm takes extremely seriously any concerns when they are raised".
Requesting anonymity due to their fear of professional repercussions in the relatively small South African legal sector, former Baker McKenzie trainees, associates and partners spoke to RollOnFriday about their time in the firm's 43-person Johannesburg office.
They told of damage to their mental health which resulted in breakdowns, medication and counselling; to their career and reputation, which resulted in some leaving law altogether; and to their personal relationships, with at least one lawyer blaming the breakdown of his marriage on his time at the firm. Many of them remained furious at what they perceived as Baker McKenzie's enduring failure to tackle the issues.
Many of the lawyers described a similar trajectory, where they were treated poorly and excluded from the 'inner circle', and, once they had indicated their desire to leave, found themselves being accused of wrongdoing, and humiliated.
'Alice', a Candidate Attorney (the South African equivalent of a trainee) in Baker McKenzie's Johannesburg office, said she "suffered emotional abuse, severe bullying from the top employees, and faced sexist comments non stop to the point where I had a breakdown".
In a complaint she handed to the firm, Alice described how she was dropped from a matter when she was unable to leave hospital where she was receiving an intravenous drip for a health condition. "I was called several times to come back to take notes for a call", but, "I could not leave with the IV only halfway done. When I got back to the office, I was thrown off the matter".
Email correspondence between Alice and a senior associate gave the impression of an office in which junior lawyers could be treated like servants and swatted away when they requested help.
On one occasion, the senior associate, who is now a partner at another international firm, sent Alice a blank email at 12:01pm with the subject heading, "Please get me food now".
A single demand to fetch food may be forgiven in a busy firm environment where juniors occasionally get saddled with menial chores in the heat of a completion, but there was evidence that an aggressive tone was frequently adopted.
In other exchanges, the senior associate wrote in response to Alice’s apparently reasonable queries, "excuse me????", “what was ceded in the Borrower cession??????????", and, “I HAVE HIGHLIGHED THE BELOW what am i asking you to do".
The senior associate may have taken her lead from management. Alice said that whenever she raised a question in her end of seat review, the senior partner supervising the review told her to "stop talking and behave".
Alice was criticised in her review on the basis that she did "not consistently engage and use the structures that exist in the office to deal with the problems and concerns you had". However, as other former Bakers SA lawyers noted, since the individuals being complained about were usually senior people in the office, seeking redress from them and their compliant HR operatives was not perceived as a particularly effective or attractive remedy.
"I went through hell", said Alice, who now works at another prestigious firm.
'Tom' joined Bakers' Joburg office as a partner from a well-regarded firm. “When I started working with Morne, the initial conflict was around my approach to matters compared to his approach to matters. Suddenly I was being treated very much as an associate", he said.
Tom claimed he was not allowed to communicate directly with clients, and instead had to place his emails in a senior partner's drafts folder – "and he would send them out, under his name", said the lawyer.
"There was a deep unhappiness in the department", said Tom. "I was coming in at a senior level, and I found that I was constantly having to deal with crying people, people who were upset, people who were shouted at".
After an in-house lawyer made erroneous amendments to a document and Tom was briefly blamed, his relationship with van der Merwe soured.
"It turned out not be my fault", but after that he was “iced out", said the lawyer.
On a subsequent trip abroad for a partners' training program, Tom "saw what the firm’s culture was in Europe", and "it became clear to me that South Africa was very different".
On his return, "I wrote to HR in London, and went into great detail about the issues". (Tom was surprised to learn from RollOnFriday that he was not the first, nor the last, to have sent such a letter.)
"What disappointed me was having written directly to London, I didn't even get the courtesy of a reply", he said. "Instead I got notice of a disciplinary."
It referred to the fact that Tom's billings were low, which he said was only because he had been frozen out of work.
"It’s really sad. I come from a disadvantaged background, I didn't have the school ties - but this was the first time in my career I met someone...who refused to work with me".
"I decided I was done. I negotiated as best I could, and I left", said Tom. "I was psychologically blown out the water. I left the legal profession."
His judgment of the person he deemed responsible was unequivocal: "He shouldn't be removed from his management positions, he should be fired”.
Tom was also critical of the global firm. "If you just look at the number of people who were turned over - even senior people - it would be clear there was a problem. Surely, as one of the largest firms in the world, they’d have picked that up? I think he’s lasted this long because the firm staked their reputation on him."
Sonia De Vries joined the Joburg office as a partner in August 2016. She left less than two years later when the press criticised Bakers after it was found to be representing Jonas Makwakwa, an executive accused of being involved in South Africa's state capture scandal. She claimed at the time that she was being scapegoated for accepting Makwakwe as a client, even though the office had vetted the instruction.
"Suddenly the MP had amnesia, and couldn't remember authorising it", said a former colleague. "She was a single mother, two kids, and they threw her under a bus. She went into a panic. They could care less. All she asked was for three months' notice. They asked her to leave immediately. They had another female partner meet with her on the Saturday, to make her more pliable, and on Monday she was told she was no longer required to come to the office, and her employment was terminated with immediate effect".
De Vries wrote in 2018 to management outside of South Africa about her concerns. In a letter seen by RollOnFriday which she sent to Fiona Carlin, now Chief Executive of Baker McKenzie's EMEA+ Region, and Paul Rawlinson, then its global chair, she notified them of her intention to bring legal action.
"My intention with this letter is not to be entirely self-serving, but to convey a real concern about the manner in which people are treated in the BMSA office, often causing tremendous hardship and with no regard for due process or rights", she wrote.
"In my view, an alarming number of women, mostly senior, have left BMSA in the last 12 months or so, six of them since August 2017 (including me), and most (if not all) of them in unpleasant circumstances. BMSA has a reputation, among other law firms and in the South African business environment for being an unpleasant place to work and for treating attorneys very badly", wrote De Vries.
She described how she was confronted in a management committee meeting where "I was in effect suspended and instructed to work from home. This was an exceptionally traumatic event, exacerbated by" one individual's "aggressive behavior directed at me".
But "the humiliation and embarrassment continued", said De Vries, who wrote that "I had to ask for permission to attend at the BMSA offices and then could only access a boardroom".
(Another lawyer recalled undergoing a similar public shaming after they quit, where they were made to wait for hours in a communal area before being allowed into the office: “They wanted to demean you. It was a degrading thing to do. That's the kind of people they are", they said.)
Regarding her resignation, De Vries wrote, "Quite simply, I was bullied into it".
Before De Vries could take further action, she died of an aneurism. A colleague said they believed that, based on discussions with De Vries’s family and children, her death was caused "in no small part by the stress she suffered as a result of her mistreatment by the firm".
Another ex-partner from the Joburg office, 'Clare', told RollOnFriday, "There was a culture of bullying, and racial and gender discrimination driven by the leadership of the firm. Other senior Partners were complicit by their silence, choosing self preservation over standing up".
A senior partner "was known for swearing at staff members and colleagues and he did so openly and with impunity", she said.
"All the accolades and hurrah and noise around diversity and inclusivity is just that – hurrah and noise. The office remains rotten at its core", said the former partner.
Like Tom, Clare was damning of global management's inaction. "They knew for years what was happening and did nothing. People have spoken out and spoken up, but the modus operandi (and we have seen this many times in Baker McKenzie – let's not forget Gary Senior)" was "ensuring that the firm and its chosen individuals are protected in terms of reputational damage and litigation", which meant that "when people speak up, they are either exited as non-performers, trouble makers or tainted".
Which may explain why alarm bells didn't ring when another former partner sued the firm in 2018, for constructive dismissal and discrimination on the basis of race and sex.
Vani Chetty has accused the firm of applying the equity partner evaluation process less onerously to van der Merwe and Wildu Du Plessis, the head of Baker McKenzie's Global Africa Practice, than to her. In publicly available documents, the ex-partner claimed that she was pushed out because she "presented both a significant challenge as well as a threat to the white male leadership in BMSA by refusing either to agree or be complicit in decisions of which she is not supportive as she believed these to be detrimental to the best interests of BMSA".
Chetty, whose case is ongoing, declined to comment.
Others did, however: "I spoke up when I was there, and I lost my job because of that", said a former associate. "This transcends ordinary bullying (which is not right in and of itself) and goes outside the norms of a normal working environment", said another ex-associate. "I am so traumatised by lawyers and law, I won't let my children become lawyers. I left my specialism", said a senior lawyer who worked there. "I've had so many young people who worked in that office say, 'I've been scarred for life', and that's not what you want to hear in law", said a former partner.
Perhaps the most shocking element of their stories is that, over the years, so many of them appealed directly to senior HR personnel and management in London and the US, but were apparently ignored.
Taking the high turnover of staff and their pleas together, it is difficult to understand how Baker McKenzie's global management could have been unaware of the alleged toxicity of the Joburg office for so long.
Asked that question, and presented with excerpts of these accounts, Esteban Raventos, an Executive Committee member at the firm, said, "We are deeply concerned about the workplace and cultural issues in our Johannesburg office and are resolute as a global team to put this right".
"For many months, we have been working to deeply understand the issues and implement fundamental management and structural changes to the office, and we will say more about this as soon as we are able", he said.
"We are also re-examining and reinforcing the resources and systems available to any person to bring forward concerns in complete confidence and with high levels of support. Additionally, we have invested in supplemental talent and HR resources in Johannesburg to ensure we live our values and thrive as a business for the benefit of our people and our clients."
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