Leaked emails and a secret recording of a 2019 Christmas Party presentation reveal what appear to be serious cultural issues at prominent law firm Morrison Kent that have now sparked at least three complaints to the Law Society.
A Herald investigation has also raised questions about the firm's retention of the Government's Covid-19 2020 wage subsidy as its billable amounts increased in the year to December 2020.
Morrison Kent, one of the few law firms not to repay wage subsidies, says MBIE was satisfied the firm met the wage subsidy requirements.
Insiders speaking to the Herald on condition of anonymity point to the 2019 Christmas party as an example of what they describe as a toxic workplace culture at the firm.
Sources provided a recording of a presentation where two women lawyers jokingly handed out awards to partners at the 2019 Christmas party.
"The next award goes to Jess*, they said, "for being the most diverse partner of the firm".
"[Jess], our token woman of colour, helping the Morrison Kent Wellington office, which comprises 98 per cent white folk, satisfies [sic] diversity requirements."
Following complaints by staff, an email was distributed to staff the following week saying the speech was inappropriate and the board said it was committed to introducing cultural awareness training across the firm in 2020.
However, sources say cultural competency training took the form of voluntary and sporadic te reo lessons only.
They also claim Morrison Kent used the pandemic as an excuse to cull staff who were believed to be underperforming to get rid of "dead weight" and claim more than half a million dollars in wage subsidies, despite billing more client hours worth more money than in the 2019 financial year.
In a statement to the Herald, Morrison Kent director Richard Caughley said the firm, like many other businesses, applied for the wage subsidy to help retain their people at full pay.
"We met the criteria for the subsidy based on a predicted downturn in revenue which helped us to navigate that uncertainty and continue to serve our clients, while paying our staff full salary. This was the intention of the wage subsidy."
"Post-lockdown analysis showed that there was an actual drop of revenue of 31.6 per cent within the three-month period of February to April 2020," he said.
"The firm's billables are not a reflection of the firm's profitability and all billing information is commercially sensitive and confidential," he said.
In regard to the 2019 Christmas party presentation, Morrison Kent declined to comment whether the women were disciplined. The firm declined to go into detail as to the cultural competence training, or who was in attendance.
"While we have acknowledged that from time to time the conduct of individuals at Morrison Kent has failed to meet the standards expected, we cannot comment on individual employment matters or on any disciplinary actions that may have been taken in respect to those employees," Caughley said.
"We have recently hired an HR manager to support us and expedited the first steps in some wider reviews. We are committed to continual improvement in the way we operate to ensure we have a culture where staff have the confidence to raise concerns and that they are appropriately dealt with."