Prominent law firm Morrison Kent is refusing to make public the findings of an independent review into the firm's culture sparked by a Herald investigation.
This has drawn criticism from a legal worker's union, which
is calling on the firm to release its report as proof it is taking the issues seriously.
An independent review by barrister Rachel Burt was conducted between November 2021 and March 2022 after the Herald revealed what appeared to be serious cultural issues at the firm's Wellington office.
Last year, insiders pointed to a 2019 Christmas party as an example of what they described as a toxic workplace culture at the firm. At the event two women lawyers handed out an award to Jess* "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, sources said cultural competency training took the form of voluntary and sporadic te reo lessons only. At the time the firm declined to go into detail as to the cultural competence training or whether the women were disciplined.
Sources also claimed Morrison Kent used the pandemic as an excuse to cull staff who were believed to be underperforming to get rid of "dead weight".
Meanwhile, the firm claimed more than half a million dollars in wage subsidies, despite billing more client hours worth more money than in the 2019 financial year, leaked documents showed.
At the time, partner Richard Caughley told the Herald the firm, like many other businesses, applied for the wage subsidy to help retain their people at full pay.
"We have subsequently supplied evidence, like many businesses, to the satisfaction of MBIE. While the wage subsidy model was one of high trust we have acted with integrity and are confident in our firm's use of the wage subsidy," he said in November.
"The firm's billables are not a reflection of the firm's profitability and all billing information is commercially sensitive and confidential," he said.
At least three complaints were made to the Law Society about Morrison Kent. The Law Society said it was legally restricted to comment on any complaints but the Herald understands that two of the three complaints are ongoing.
In a leaked email dated May 31, partner Andrew Stewart said the firm was increasing charge-out rates between 10-12 per cent across the board from June 1, 2022.
"Over recent years our suppliers have all increased prices significantly, and we have also continued to meet the market with salary increases across the board.
"There is also now a significant degree of additional compliance we need to meet, which ultimately can only be recoverable through fees."
The Herald requested a copy of the independent investigation's findings twice, as well as the review's terms of reference, and information relating to charge-out rates. Insiders say the report has not been distributed to all staff and wages haven't increased to all staff.
In a "full and final statement" partner Richard Caughley said the firm had addressed the Herald's "questions as directly as possible noting certain limitations in our ability to provide specific detail, particularly in relation to commercially sensitive or private information".
Following the Herald investigation Rachel Burt was engaged to conduct an independent cultural review into Morrison Kent. Burt declined to comment.
The review occurred between November 2021 and March 2022 and was "thorough, involving face-to-face interviews with 42 of our people from all levels and including all our partners".
Relevant policies, staff survey results and "recent exit interviews" were also reviewed throughout the process, he said. The Herald understands no former staff members were interviewed.
Caughley said the firm cares "deeply about our people and about creating a positive, safe, and enjoyable workplace that develops and supports the careers of all people equally".
"We do not condone any form of bullying, harassment, or offensive behaviour. We have previously acknowledged that off the back of considerable growth at pace, some of our systems, processes and practices needed to be improved.
Caughley provided a quote from the review that said the firm was "full of great people, getting to work on a satisfying variety of high-quality work, with long-standing and highly valued clients".
"We are proud to have revamped policies in relation to bullying, harassment and discrimination; diversity and inclusion; and flexible working, to ensure consistency and equity across our business.
"Internal communication was another area for improvement, and we are delighted to be launching a new intranet in early August to help address this.
"It is our intention to continue to evolve our business to ensure we maintain a great culture and engaged, happy, healthy people."
In a leaked email addressed to all staff, dated July 1, partner Debbie Dunbar said following the review's recommendations, diversity and inclusion and complaints/bullying/harassment policies had been updated and put in place, as well as training.
An internal mentoring programme and a comprehensive training and development policy would be developed. On top of budget relief for new staff for the first month, a specialised induction programme and a robust buddy system would be introduced to all staff.
The firm's vision and values would be displayed and promoted within the firm and partners would undertake annual 360 degree reviews.
In a leaked email to all staff dating back to November 22, Caughley said all media enquiries should be directed to him. "As we are the subject of a current media enquiry, and that others may follow, I would like to take the opportunity to remind everyone of our media protocols."
Following the Herald's investigation, it was natural too that clients may have questions, the email read.
"In the first instance, please direct any written queries to me and we will respond accordingly.
"Alternatively, if you are asked a question during the course of a meeting, we encourage you to use the information enclosed in this email, or on our website, as required, to support you in that conversation - and I thank you in advance for your professionalism in handling this incredibly challenging topic."
Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union co-president is calling on Morrison Kent to release the findings, saying a review is a good thing and a step forward, not something to hide.
"Morrison Kent can use this opportunity to look to the future and be a leader amongst law firms who are all grappling with issues of culture and transparency. This will give its workers and wider society confidence that the firm takes these issues seriously."
ALWU also understands that Morrison Kent has recently increased its charge-out rates. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, Morrison Kent should equitably share its increased profits with the workers who directly generate those profits, Upperton says.
"Pay increases to match inflation should be implemented immediately, over and above normal salary reviews."
* Names have been changed