No one starts a career in Biglaw thinking it’ll be “easy.” And that’s fair, since it’s generally high-stakes work with pressing deadlines, meaning a ripe environment for stress. But too often the behavior of attorneys — usually partners or senior lawyers — takes a turn for the toxic, creating an abusive environment.
The latest example of this are the allegations Jamie Hamilton at Roll on Friday dug up on Baker McKenzie shareholder, Morne van der Merwe. The allegations against van der Merwe — the now former managing partner of the firm’s Johannesburg office — have words like “bullied,” “demeaned,” and “degraded” bandied about… which is not a great look.
‘Alice’, a Candidate Attorney (the South African equivalent of a trainee) in Baker McKenzie’s Johannesburg office, said she “suffered emotional abuse, severe bullying from the top employees, and faced sexist comments non stop to the point where I had a breakdown”.
In a complaint she handed to the firm, Alice described how she was dropped from a matter when she was unable to leave hospital where she was receiving an intravenous drip for a health condition. “I was called several times to come back to take notes for a call”, but, “I could not leave with the IV only halfway done. When I got back to the office, I was thrown off the matter”.
Other partners had stories of problematic behavior as well:
‘Tom’ joined Bakers’ Joburg office as a partner from a well-regarded firm. “When I started working with Morne, the initial conflict was around my approach to matters compared to his approach to matters. Suddenly I was being treated very much as an associate”, he said.
Tom claimed he was not allowed to communicate directly with clients, and instead had to place his emails in a senior partner’s drafts folder – “and he would send them out, under his name”, said the lawyer.
“There was a deep unhappiness in the department”, said Tom. “I was coming in at a senior level, and I found that I was constantly having to deal with crying people, people who were upset, people who were shouted at”.
And there are allegations about the firm’s handling of a controversial client and scapegoating a single partner rather than take responsibility for the representation as a firm:
Sonia De Vries joined the Joburg office as a partner in August 2016. She left less than two years later when the press criticised Bakers after it was found to be representing Jonas Makwakwa, an executive accused of being involved in South Africa’s state capture scandal. She claimed at the time that she was being scapegoated for accepting Makwakwe as a client, even though the office had vetted the instruction.
“Suddenly the MP had amnesia, and couldn’t remember authorising it”, said a former colleague. “She was a single mother, two kids, and they threw her under a bus. She went into a panic. They could care less. All she asked was for three months’ notice. They asked her to leave immediately. They had another female partner meet with her on the Saturday, to make her more pliable, and on Monday she was told she was no longer required to come to the office, and her employment was terminated with immediate effect”.
De Vries’s own description of the events is revealing about what life in the Johannesburg office was really like:
De Vries wrote in 2018 to management outside of South Africa about her concerns.
She described how she was confronted in a management committee meeting where “I was in effect suspended and instructed to work from home. This was an exceptionally traumatic event, exacerbated by” one individual’s “aggressive behavior directed at me”.
But “the humiliation and embarrassment continued”, said De Vries, who wrote that “I had to ask for permission to attend at the BMSA offices and then could only access a boardroom”.
(Another lawyer recalled undergoing a similar public shaming after they quit, where they were made to wait for hours in a communal area before being allowed into the office: “They wanted to demean you. It was a degrading thing to do. That’s the kind of people they are”, they said.)
Regarding her resignation, De Vries wrote, “Quite simply, I was bullied into it”.
Before De Vries could take further action, she died of an aneurism. A colleague said they believed that, based on discussions with De Vries’s family and children, her death was caused “in no small part by the stress she suffered as a result of her mistreatment by the firm”.
When confronted with the allegations of bullying, Esteban Raventos, an Executive Committee member at Baker McKenzie, said in August, “We are deeply concerned about the workplace and cultural issues in our Johannesburg office and are resolute as a global team to put this right.” It was also reported that van der Merwe quietly stepped down from his management role.
That was then, and now van der Merwe’s out of the firm, from a statement:
“Morne van der Merwe has stepped down as a Principal of Baker McKenzie and, with effect from 01 September 2021, as a director and shareholder of Baker McKenzie Inc in Johannesburg. He will leave the Firm on 14 September 2021″, the firm said in a statement.
While welcome, the move was a long time coming, as a former attorney at the Johannesburg office of Baker McKenzie told Roll on Friday:
“I, like many others, left BMSA as a direct result” of “bullying and abuse”, and that while the firm in her opinion “ought to have taken steps” a long time ago, the overhaul “presents an opportunity for the firm to rebuild”.
As for who’s left in charge: Dutch partners Erik Scheer and Mirjam de Blecourt are “supporting” the Johannesburg office as part of a “transitional leadership team.”
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).