I have just finished reading the independent report into sexual harassment and bullying at Russell McVeagh. It offers a unique insight into the inner workings of a large law firm, and leaves you with the impression is that it is narcissistic, depraved and, frankly, more than a little sick.
Dame Margaret Bazley writes with clarity, and even touches of dry humour. "The role of the firm's Ethics Committee does not appear to be well understood." You don't say.
There are also moments of pathos. After reading how junior and support staff at the firm were yelled at, belittled and bullied by arrogant senior partners who "forget they are dealing with humans", I found myself strangely moved by this sentence: "Many juniors displayed remarkable empathy for the pressure partners are under."
I actually felt tears well up. Altruism and self-sacrifice from those who are most vulnerable reminds us of what it means to be decent and good. But I also felt angry.
So, these lowly minions in the law firm pecking order, forgave their captors - sorry, bosses - and excused their cruelty because their aggressors were feeling a bit, uh, stressed. This from people regularly expected to work 14 hour days, who were literally "shushed" by HR when they tried to talk about being groped.
Is there such a thing as Law Firm Stockholm Syndrome? The recurrent maladaptive interpersonal patterns described in this report would suggest so. (Stockholm Syndrome is the name for the strong emotional ties that develop when one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.)
It hard to escape the conclusion that junior staff at this firm are enmeshed in an abusive relationship with their overlord partners. And yet the report's recommendation is for those with little power to stick with this toxic marriage but in essence have a more exhaustive list of house rules stuck to the fridge. Yeah, that'll work.
Despite my respect for Dame Margaret's mana, and the fastidious way she has gone about this piece of work, researching it with input from 250 people, I think her report has some serious flaws.
Thinking you can change a culture deeply rooted in power and domination by telling people to simply behave better, seems like magical thinking.
Most of Dame Margaret's recommendations involve concocting more rules, procedures and protocols for everything from drinking to dating. Yet, the firm – it's a law firm, rules are its currency - already had many procedures and protocols before. That didn't prevent disgusting behaviour or poorly handled complaints about it.
I suspect Dame Margaret admits as much when she suggests that in order to change the culture where some junior staff feel obliged to work through the night, the firm should start paying for overtime. This seems an admission that when you're serious about change you need a different reward structure, not just a more detailed manual.
And here is another important note.
I appreciate Dame Margaret pointing out that culture change of the kind she is advocating here, can take a long time, maybe ten years, to bring about. But, if she is shrewd enough to see that real change is a slow and arduous process, could she perhaps have pointed out that offering three (three!) free sessions of counselling might be less than useless?
As someone who has been in twice weekly therapy for four years, and has undergone my own kind of culture transformation, it bothers me that people are getting set up for failure when they expect they are going to get anything of much value in three sessions. You are unlikely to bring about lasting or meaningful change in that time.
I was also puzzled that Dame Margaret didn't delve into the real life implications of how staff might go about actually taking up this meagre offer of counselling. How confidential is that process? From what I have gathered, in high stress professions there is plenty of talk of counselling support, but there is still a stigma and a black mark next to your name if you actually acknowledge needing help. Even when it's there, few people dare to use it.
Perhaps most importantly, the very qualities which Dame Margaret is suggesting should be manifested by senior partners ("excellent people management") are very unlikely to co-exist with the qualities of being the kind of rainmaking, risk-taking corporate lawyer who has historically been Russell McVeagh's DNA.
This is the kind of person who is prepared to "stare into the abyss beyond conventional morality to do what needs to be done", to steal a line from a TV show about venality and power, Billions.
Here's the catch. The very qualities which are idealised in law firms – possessing the genetic anomaly which allows one to behave like a profit making machine, rather than a human being who is prone to fear and self doubt - are likely to mitigate against managing healthy and helpful relationships.
You can hire someone who is open and empathetic or you can hire a cold-blooded snake in a suit but in my experience, it is deluded to think you can find someone who is both.