I can hear it already 'please no, not another blog on the Presidents Club dinner', no more #metoo. I’m bracing myself for the online abuse I’m likely to elicit before even tapping the keyboard. This blog is for sure going to make uncomfortable reading if you are one of the many, many old-school sexist and entitled men who still run the legal profession. It’s a fact. Our profession is rife with behaviours and attitudes that firms should have eliminated long ago under the auspices of and with enforcement action by the regulators.
I would go further. As a partner in a firm you should have a duty to report your fellow partners who commit or condone sexism or sexual harassment. Indeed, this must apply to anyone who is in the profession not just those at the top who are, after all, setting the bar for behavioural standards. Instead what ordinarily happens is men close ranks and protect one another. The 'troublemaking' female victim is pushed out. If she won’t go why not try breaking her mentally so that she has to leave the workplace? Problem solved. As long as you then get her to sign a confidentiality obligation in a settlement agreement life just carries on as normal and the conduct goes unpunished. Everybody is not fine.
Mishcon de Reya has issued a statement [see below] seeking to distance the firm from the event after the publication of one of its partner’s names on the guest list. It’s all the familiar platitudes 'contrary to the firm’s core values' blah blah blah. But will they sanction Mr Minkoff? I doubt it. Especially if he is a significant contributor to the bottom line. Will the SRA? Mr Minkoff is 'embarrassed'. Really? Embarrassed by the association or that he has been named and shamed? Shouldn’t the word he is looking for be 'ashamed'? How about 'disgusted'?
The SRA Principles 2011 in the SRA Handbook state that 'Members of the public should be able to place their trust in you. Any behaviour either within or outside your professional practice which undermines this trust damages not only you, but also the ability of the legal profession as a whole to serve society' (2.11). Mandatory Principle 2 is to act with integrity. Principle 6 is behaving in a way that maintains public trust. Principle 9 is about encouraging and respecting diversity. These principles are not optional. The Bar Standards Board has similar rules. We work in a regulated industry. There are rules. If you break the rules you must be sanctioned.
I am militantly against confidentiality obligations in settlement agreements (NDAs) which prevent victims of sexual harassment and discrimination from disclosing what has happened to them. Fine, gag them from telling others what the settlement terms are and how much they received in settlement payment, but it ought to be unlawful to stop the victim talking publicly about what they have been through. Until this veil of secrecy is lifted by making it unlawful in the way that settlement agreements cannot gag a person from whistleblowing nothing will change.
Naming and shaming might be uncomfortable but is there another way to eliminate unacceptable attitudes and behaviours if there are no consequences for this conduct? It should be compulsory to report a regulated person to the regulator for conduct which breaches the Handbook and Code. A higher level of scrutiny around behaviour is expected of us. Scrutiny goes with the territory. Now is the time for the regulators to show their teeth and stamp out the scourge on our profession which is sexism and sexual harassment. What better moment to start?
Karen Jackson is a specialist discrimination lawyer and managing director of her own firm, didlaw.
Mishcon de Reya issued the following statement: 'The existence of male only events of the type operated by the Presidents Club are contrary to the core values of Mishcon de Reya, specifically that we always aim to foster a culture which thrives on diversity and respect for the individual. The firm endeavours in all its matters and dealings to be an inclusive environment where everyone can realise their full potential.
The actions that took place that night were deplorable and should be condemned. They have no legitimate place in society.
Nick Minkoff attended the evening as a guest in order to support good causes. He is embarrassed by being associated with this event and has confirmed that he never personally witnessed any of the reported behaviours but does not dispute them. He himself condemns any such behaviours.'