The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

A trip to 1974

Last week I had a meeting with two senior lawyers. Very important people, in my world at least.

They were very serious men, all grey hair and gravitas. The meeting was almost like a job interview at first, as if they were testing us to see if we were worthy of their very important time.

After about 20 minutes or so they relaxed a little, and so did we. And then the meeting took an unexpected and frankly disconcerting detour into the 1970s.

This came in the form of a double act routine about their colleagues, and the amusing misfortune of their ethnic backgrounds and (in one case) restricted height. All very good-natured and affectionate, of course.

My colleague and I shifted nervously in our seats. We did that awkward half smile that says “You’re being a massive dick, but I don’t want to get fired”. We willed the clock towards lunchtime with the power of our discomfort.

Well, there’s nothing like a little mild racism and some midget jokes to liven up a dull meeting, is there? And so much the better if it comes with an avuncular chuckle and a touch of golf club affability.

Now, I’m ok with nostalgia generally, even when it involves the 70s. I buy Black Mountain and Sleepy Sun cds, and (guilty secret) I’d quite like to have a lava lamp.

But this kind of behaviour is, not to beat around the bush, unacceptable. So unacceptable, in fact, that it’s ridiculous that I even have to say that it’s unacceptable.

And to hear it from senior lawyers, men who I’m supposed to respect and whose position I’m supposed to aspire to? That’s just bizarre.

These are, after all, supposedly intelligent men. I would probably argue that genuinely intelligent people, having the brain power to reason beyond their reflexive prejudices, would understand how offensive and wrong stereotypes of whatever nature are.

Even if you’re not down with that view, how is it possible for an experienced lawyer not to understand the legal context and ramifications of such behaviour? You might not agree with the Equality Act, but you can’t deny that it exists.

I’m sure that if we had challenged them, at the risk of our careers (and I feel pretty low for not doing it), they would have disclaimed any taint of prejudice. I’m sure that it was all meant in fun, and I’m sure that they sincerely believed that they were doing no disrespect to their colleagues.

And maybe they thought that we were all white, middle class men together, and where’s the harm if the subjects (individual or generic) of your chucklesome anecdotes aren’t around to hear it. Or maybe they’re just dicks, and don’t care.

I’ve been lucky in my career so far not to have come across too much of this kind of thing, save for one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) small hours return from a contract negotiation listening to our then Head of Sales deliver a monologue on Strip Clubs I Have Known. That’s probably why I was taken aback by this latest episode to the extent that I needed to write about it.

Of course, I know there is prejudice in the profession, manifesting for example in the rather uniform appearance of big law partners. That has to be addressed, but in the meantime surely we’ve gone beyond golf club banter as a vehicle for business discourse?

I’m middle class, I’m a man, and I’m white. Prejudice isn’t going to hold back my career, whatever the right wing fairground barkers say. But I don’t want to work in that environment, and I don’t want the talented lawyers that I work with (whether or not they fit that standard profile) to have to put up with either. We’ve had the 70s once, and we don’t need them again.

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18 responses to “A trip to 1974

  1. botzarelli August 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Obviously I don’t know the precise context and identity of the charming chaps you write about, but I think you should have said something. They probably wouldn’t have made the comments had the audience not been apparently “people like them”. There’s of course, at times, a fine line between standing up for appropriate behaviour and appearing to be vicariously offended in a “PC gone mad” way.

    Similarish thing happened a few years back when a couple of my team members were subjected to a stream of sexist and homophobic anecdotes by a jovial client but were too junior to want to make a fuss about it and possibly harm their careers if the client took against the firm as a result. I supported them in getting a complaint made to the client via the client relationship partner and the client both apologised and continued to instruct. Indeed the feedback we got was very positive as the miscreant’s colleagues were similarly uncomfortable and had been impressed at the professional way in which it was raised without fear of commercial repercussions.

    • legalbizzle August 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      I agree with you that there are times when one can and should say something, and I would certainly do so in support of anyone in my team who raised an issue like that with me. I can’t really explain why I didn’t say anything myself on this occasion without disclosing more detail than I’m comfortable with. But I feel unhappy that I wimped out – which is part of the reason why I wrote this piece.

      • botzarelli August 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm

        I quite understand – only the superhuman can always do and say what they know they ought to. If I hadn’t been negotiating an exit from the firm in question (so being able to have the luxury of not caring that much if there were commercial repercussions) I’d probably just have sympathised with my colleagues and left it at that.

  2. Intelligent Challenge August 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    If I think back to some of the beliefs my grandparents expressed when I was growing up, it’s amazing to see how different the world was then – in particular what sort of prejudice was simply taken for granted (and indeed not recognised as prejudice). Similarly many of the jokes that did the rounds in the playground when I was growing up seem massively inappropriate now.

    In the same way that culture defeats strategy at an organisational level, I suspect personal values and beliefs defeat diversity training and a knowledge of the equality act.

    A key factor in people’s ability to change must be their level of self-awareness, and I’ve certainly come across lawyers in my career who while blessed with lightning intellect and massive self confidence, did not always have an EQ to match.

    • legalbizzle August 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      This lack of EQ is definitely a thing in the profession, and maybe that has something to do with a certain type of person that is attracted to or is good at the law. A preponderance of intellect over insight, maybe.

      But then again, I have very little sympathy with people who are paid huge amounts to identify and manage risk, but don’t practice what they preach.

  3. Chris August 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Some years ago my employer (a parcel carrier that was, at the time, part of a larger family-owned retail company with a “Dignity at Work” policy and a hard earned, good reputation) and our main competitor (also a parcel carrier that was part of a family-owned retailer but with no such policies) merged.

    One meeting that stood out was chaired by the Sales Director of our competitor. After a long and protracted set of discussions regarding each client and how their IT systems integration and parcel traffic would be handled by the new business, the Sales Director turned to the group of eight of us (4 from each business covering Sales and IT), and said – without any prior examples of racism, bad language or the like – and I warn you, the “N-word” is about to appear – asked: “Are there any more n***ers in the wood pile?”

    The room fell silent. Our Sales Manager and Commercial Director (similar role to their Sales Director – one of a number of boardroom battles going on at the time) didn’t know what to do. They’d both only been in the business for around 4 years, and though they knew of the Dignity at Work policy, they hadn’t any experience of such policies in the other parcel carriers they’d worked at before and were unsure of what to do. I looked at the main IT lead from our parent company – he was ashen faced – I had over a decade of service at the time, he had a little more service than me, and I viewed him in seniority, particularly as he was the only person present who reported outside and above both parcel carriers. Though I too was stunned into silence at what had just been said.

    The Sales Director then tried to dismiss the problem with: “Oh don’t complain, I’ll defend that at employment tribunal if needed”. One of the Sales Managers from the other company chimed in with a spectacular piece of arslikhan: “Yes, and you’ll probably win too”.

    In the end, like one of Pastor Niemöller’s intellectuals, I did nothing. A mistake and one that I rue to this day. Looking back, I should’ve complained, but the fluidity of the situation within the business was such that I’d probably have had to leave or face being “performance managed out of the business” (to use that quite vile HR phrase) – there was a lot of that going on too.

    I hope you don’t end up regretting not speaking out in the same way.

  4. Disco_Infiltrator (@Disco_Infiltrat) August 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    I think we have all been in a situation like that before and regretted not saying anything, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much about it – being female and a bit ‘effnick’* I tend to be find the offensive subject matter involves homophobia, as if somehow that is ok because, of course there is absolutely no way that I might possibly be gay!? Sometimes I have said something, objected to the comment and had a useful discussion as to why it is unacceptable and we’ve moved on but other times I have had quite hostile or defensive reactions to my objections and it has affected the on-going working relationship. And then, there are other times, much to my shame, I haven’t said anything. Knowing a bit of the background to your meeting, I certainly understand why you felt you couldn’t and I am pretty sure I would have done the same in your situation.

    (*on many occasion, I find the fact that I am not white makes some people overtly ‘PC’ or desperate to appear ‘not racist’ to such an extent, they actually end up being inadvertently offensive)

  5. Anne O'Neill August 23, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    On the plus side, perhaps the fact that you feel the need to comment on this is evidence that this sort of thing is becoming rarer in the profession, which can only be good.

    • legalbizzle August 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      Hopefully so! I certainly don’t come across it much, as I said in the post – although that might be a reflection of the type of work that I do, and the type of lawyers that I generaly come into contact with.

  6. Tom Hiskey August 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    You’re a fine bloke Mr Bizzle. Always welcome in York for a coffee.

  7. Anna Williams August 24, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    1987: interview with two male partners at a firm that is still prominent today. One announced that he didn’t think much of women articled clerks (trainees); the other declared he had no time for anyone who’d done the conversion course. Double whammy for me. Painful interview all round.

    • legalbizzle August 24, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Yikes. Somewhat surprised that a firm with that attitude could retain their prominent position, if they shut themselves off from more than half of the available talent.

  8. Nicola Proudlock August 24, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Hats off to you for your honesty and candour, Bizzle. I’m glad you felt offended by this incident…shows you’re coming from the right place. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve felt similarly compromised over the years. Nowadays, I’m more likely to take issue, but no one likes confrontation, do they (unless we’re talking to the other side!)? We lawyers still have a long way to go in terms of emotional intelligence.

    • legalbizzle August 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm

      Thanks, Nicola. As I said in the comments above, I can’t really explain why I didn’t say anything without revealing myself too much. It wasn’t fear of confrontation, more of consequences, but that of course is not necessarily an excuse.

  9. angela September 2, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Once when speaking to a person at a party, she began to use the P word in relation to her (absent) friend who may or may not have been from Pakistan – I to my shame did not speak up about it and just tried to change the conversation, but my friend. to his credit, did speak up about it. In response she said, oh it’s no worse than saying C**ky (in relation to people who may or may not be from China) – to our shocked faces she went on to say, but I don’t intend to be racist, you’re the ones taking it that way, therefore you’re the ones who are racist. Unbelievable.

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