'Is..is this how you do it?'
Lawyers in private practice are not just thinking about Covid. They are also engaged in the culture wars, and with a few weeks left to enter the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2021 Survey, it's clear that staff feel strongly about both the direction their firms have taken on progressive matters, and whether it is heartfelt.
The Trowers & Hamlins (joint 4th in FOTY 2020) management team was "very responsive to the difficult conversation we have had following the brutal murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement", said a partner at the firm. "We have devised a Race Action Plan which has been approved at board level and we have signed up to the Race Fairness Commitment".
The partner said there was "slight frustration" that "the people who bring in the fees get more ratings than the people who work hard maintaining our culture!"
But another Trowers partner suggested it was not entirely clear why Trowers needed to go to action stations over a death in Minnesota, commenting, "it's all getting a bit woke lately, in common with everywhere else, I suppose".
Macfarlanes (9th) was also praised for addressing race matters. Following the death of George Floyd, the firm asked broadcaster Afua Hirsch to deliver a series of talks "that were incredibly well attended", said a lawyer. Over 400 staff joined one zoom call, and "you'd never get that many people to come to a physical lecture at lunchtime!"
Conversely, a junior solicitor at Baker McKenzie (47th) was "disappointed by the firm's slow response to the George Floyd tragedy", which had a "huge impact on several colleagues". However, she said the firm "noticeably stepped up" once "this lack of response was called into question". In June the firm posted a repudiation of racism titled, ‘We are not neutral’.
"Wokeness abounds", complained an exasperated senior solicitor at Burness Paull. There were, she said, "Constant exhortations to please answer questions about whether my gender identity is the same as my gender assigned at birth".
Some respondents said that certain lawyers were only paying lip service to social justice causes in order to raise their profile and shore up their otherwise perilous standing.
A "fully woke" lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton "likes to spend her days posting on LinkedIn about how great she is", alleged a colleague, who said that pre-Covid "she went to every conference going, virtue-signalling away".
It isn't just individuals attracting criticism. Firms have also been dragged for espousing support for progressive ideals without fully convincing staff it was genuine.
Womble Bond Dickinson (21st) was described by one of its lawyers as "a minor public school white boys' club hidden by a barely visible smokescreen of box ticking wokeness". A colleague agreed that "we pretend to be very woke but the reality is very different. We embarrass ourselves by trying to be something we are not given most of the firm is Newcastle based".
Clifford Chance (joint 26th) was "a little bit too focused on identity politics", according to one respondent, who said it was "remarkable how despite the LGBTQ/BAME/gender equality pushes by the firm, all of our trainees seem to still be the exact same (super polished, public schooled, Oxbridge, rich parents, gap years, work experience with daddy at Goldman Sachs etc)". That person may not be completely convinced, then, by the firm's move this week to remove gendered language from all its documents, as a means of challenging unconscious assumptions about gender roles, and "recognising that not everyone identifies as male or female and some people are non-binary/non-gendered".
Other firms' staff suggested that management risked creating a rod for its own back. "The focus on CSR, D&I and other cultural initiatives feels hubristic", warned a Linklaters (42nd) lawyer.
"They say and promote all the good things one expects from a modern progressive firm", said a lawyer at DAC Beachcroft, but "fail to ensure it is really implemented. I'm talking about gender pay gap, lack of BAME representation, too many posh/wannabe posh twats everywhere".
A lawyer at Freshfields (48th) complained that sex scandals had forced the firm to adopt a progressive puritanism. "Once, I'm told, there was such a thing as a culture at Freshfields. The Beckwith scandal killed it, apparently, which is why every post-deal drinks or ski trip or party is now heavy with the fetid scent of fearful partners and every three days we are all ritually chained up and dragged to another woke Being Freshfields flagellation-fest".
But other lawyers said their firms were capable of threading the needle. "I know that we are known to be very 'woke'", said a lawyer at RPC (joint 26th), but "in practice that actually means that people respect each other".
"It's worth mentioning that the firm has an active group of diversity champions on race, gender and sexuality/gender identity", said an employee of Shoosmiths (12th), where the calendars "even include notifications about special commemorative days (e.g. Monday was Barbados Independence Day)".
A Quinn Emmanuel lawyer offered an alterative perspective. "One mustn't underestimate what is blissfully absent", he said. "Pigeonholing people into token BD and recruitment initiatives by their gender or race, endless internal emails and...talks about the next virtue-signalling project". He submitted his entry before Quinn's diversity debacle.
A lawyer at Hogan Lovells (joint 26th) praised his firm, but criticised the theory that institutions must be assumed to be inherently racist and in need of affirmative action, particularly as his experience was that Hogan Lovells was a terrific place to work for a person of colour. "Virtue signalling nonsense needs to stop", he said.
"As a mixed race individual, I find the concept of race quotas deeply offensive. The colour of my skin has, to date, never impacted my career and nor should it. The idea, therefore, that I would be promoted, not because of my quality, but because I am a bit browner than the next person along, is a personal insult, undermining the years of hard work put in by everyone at the firm, including me. HL is not an institution with issues of systemic racism - stop insulting everyone who works here by treating it like one".
Fiery stuff. Keep it coming, take the survey.