The removal of global firm Latham & Watkins’s Bill Voge as global chair and managing partner will strike many lawyers as harsh. The reason given was ‘communications of a sexual nature’ with a woman he has never met in person and who had no connection to the firm.
Latham has not confirmed what else may have happened, though the firm’s statement added: ‘Voge engaged in subsequent conduct relating to this matter that, while not unlawful, the executive committee concluded was not befitting the leader of the firm.’
It echoes the media storm that surrounded barrister Charlotte Proudman’s decision to make public messages received over LinkedIn from a law firm partner she had never met, whose online ‘footprint’ proved a veritable treasure-trove of inappropriate comments.
Given boorishness isn’t a crime and there was no allegation of an assault, should he have had to stand down?
Yes – from Latham’s perspective, absolutely.
Reflect for a moment on what the firm wants to be known for. It gives great prominence to its flagship project ‘Women Enriching Business’. A network for its lawyers and clients, it aims to ‘attract top talent and to support the long-term success of women’ and provide ‘opportunities for women to grow and develop as leaders’.
It sees value for the firm in this project, and with a global turnover in excess of $3bn, it seems to be good at spotting value.
The firm holds out its business model as one that relies on respect. I met Latham lawyers when the firm was newly set up in London, and they were keen to stress this – associates sit on interview panels for partner lateral hires, and have a proper say on the final hiring decision.
As we are, often rightly, cynical about businesses’ value statements, Latham’s choice was to lose hard-won trust, or to lose its global chair.
It may be that, as Lib Dem peer Shirley Williams has suggested, men should more often get a slap in the face or a stamp on the foot for harassing actions. She is, I think, concerned that equality will be set back if women, instead, respond to some behaviour by withdrawing from arenas of power and influence.
I sympathise with the latter point, but it is not the whole story.
There is in many quarters a poor understanding of why lewd, boorish conduct and sexual harassment are a discrimination issue.
The reason, though, is not complicated. It is quite simply very difficult to do well, and to seek and gain advancement in an atmosphere where you are not respected.
The Gazette reader who thundered in the ‘comments’ under a previous article on this topic, ‘the trouble is women who can’t take a compliment!’, hadn’t quite grasped that. (And since when was a compliment meant to be something you had to ‘take’, like a school caning?)
Voge’s ‘subsequent conduct’ clearly compounded his problems.
A closing thought, though, for men who disagree with my support for the decisions Latham took, or who think the contrition on show in Voge’s statement went too far.
The way we generally comport ourselves is also about being professional. With regard to stuff that happens on company time - we are supposed to be at work, aren’t we?