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.