Blimey. Herbert Smith has really put its foot in it this time. As revealed in the issue, the firm stands accused of discriminating against its own Indian associates.
As associate rebellions go, this hardly compares with Clifford Chance‘s notorious 13-page ‘Paddinggate’ memo of 2002, when New York associates claimed that billing targets of 2,420 hours encouraged the padding of bills.
The magic circle firm was pitched into a global media storm. Following Enron and the collapse of accountancy firm Arthur Andersen six months earlier, the outraged media smelled the blood of the world’s biggest law firm. The crisis threw the upper echelons of the firm into a panic and insiders feared for its future. Herbies should escape that level of opprobrium, but it has been pretty daft. Nay, stupid.
The firm suffered an associates exodus from its disputes group in 2005, with one memorably complaining that his confidence was being sapped on a daily basis. This is also a tale of bungled management.
The disputes story was one of a series that brought the issue of associate retention and morale to the forefront of people’s minds. Herbert Smith – and indeed the whole market – responded with a series of initiatives to make associates feel more loved.
And they do. As Herbies assistant Philip Beer points out in our feature in this issue: “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s perfect, but it’s got a lot better in the years I’ve been an assistant.”
The firm has brought in people partners, launched an alternative career structure and encouraged associates to join the associate discussion group. Hell, it even recruited an inclusivity and diversity manager.
Which brings us back to the case in point. As the aggrieved associates point out, the integration course was designed with the best intentions, but was implemented so clumsily it caused huge offence.
English language lessons were seen as “condescending” and associates worried that the course would lead to “stigmatisation”. Piloting the course with the Indian group has “created serious misgivings about Herbert Smith’s claims of being a truly ‘international’ law firm”, according to an email sent from the Indian associates to India group chair Chris Parsons.
As UK firms expand around the globe they face a constant fight to avoid accusations of imperialism, but this sort of blunder was always avoidable.