By Roy Smollan, Auckland University Of Technology, New Zealand
Cheetham and Wynne, a fast-growing law firm started in 1976 by Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne, had been located in a downtown Auckland office for nearly 40 years. The company specialised in commercial law, with many of their clients being banking, insurance and finance organisations. For a long time, all of the lawyers had been white males, most of whom had gone to the same school as Owen and Jack. The administrative and paralegal staff were mostly younger women. Late on Friday afternoons the lawyers often went to the O’Connell Club, a members-only club, styled on those found in London, where they could eat, drink and play snooker and darts. Originally, it was an all-male domain, but when the club had been accused of discrimination it had opened its doors to female members. Only a few women had joined in the past decade, though, and there were also only a few non-white members. Many deals were done by the Cheetham and Wynne law firm in this club or on the golf course.
Two new partners had joined the firm four years ago, Mark Cheetham and Cathy Wynne. Like their fathers, they had been classmates at university. Cathy was the first female lawyer to be hired. Since the two had started at the practice, the number of clients—many of which were internet, mobile and software companies—had grown significantly. These firms were aggressively sought by the two young lawyers, who specialised in the protection of patents and other intellectual property. It had taken considerable persuasion from the two younger partners for the firm to hire Anand Moodley, who concentrated on environmental issues, and Pauline Herata, who had strong connections with Mãori businesses and community organisations. The two senior partners had initially been reluctant to employ lawyers, who, as Jack had put it, were ‘not like us’, or to go into fields that were different from the safe commercial arena they knew well. However, they had softened their stance somewhat when the firm experienced strong growth in the newer areas.
The size of the firm had grown, too, from a stable 14 to a total of 30 staff, and the premises were found to be too small. In addition to the four partners there were 13 other lawyers, five legal executives (staff who concentrate on debt collection and property transfers but who are not qualified lawyers), six secretaries, a receptionist and an accountant.
A few weeks ago the firm moved into a brand-new office building opposite the harbour. Mark and Cathy had persuaded their fathers to agree to an open-plan form of office design. An email from the partners to all staff one month before the move pointed out the reasons for the move and for the new office layout. It was suggested that the benefits included more flexibility and opportunities for teamwork. The email noted that open plan is a more economical use of space. Since the firm was growing, building walls for offices and then knocking them down and rebuilding them for new offices would be very expensive. The cost savings on building fixed walls was significant and part of this would be put into providing more expensive and more comfortable furniture. A team atmosphere would develop when people were working ‘side-by-side’ and communicating more often. Confidential meetings were to be held in a number of meeting rooms, with a new online system used to book the rooms. Cathy Wynne had been behind the office move and had liaised with the interiors firm that had furnished it. The walls were painted in a range of pastel colours, decorated with modern paintings, and the desks had glass tops. There was a large informal kitchen and a staff area that included beanbags, magazines, comics and games. The idea had been to create a more relaxed and vibrant work space where more creativity and social interaction could take place. She and Mark allocated the desk spaces to all of the staff.
The senior partners, Jack and Owen, were opposed to mixing with the rest of the staff but were happy to share an enclosed corner office. Jack now worked only in the afternoons and Owen, whose appearances were becoming less and less frequent, often played golf in the afternoons. Mark and Cathy were to be part of the open-plan layout but their ‘spaces’ were located on the other side of the office, also facing the harbour.
A mixed response
A few weeks after the move the two senior partners were lunching, at the expense of the firm, at an upmarket restaurant and discussing the staff response to the new office setting.
‘Cheeky buggers’, said Jack, ‘I saw a fake memo claiming that some people are more equal than others. Probably referring to our office, Owen. And was that picture of two fat pigs supposed to be us? Of course we aren’t equal, never were, never will be! Some senior associates complain that they have lost status without their own offices and that the online booking system does not work properly. And I think that “playpen” that Cathy created just encourages them to loaf and chat. Law is a serious business.’
‘That’s nothing’, claimed Owen, ‘I heard two secretaries moaning that they couldn’t talk to their boyfriends now that others could listen in. Ah, things are not what they used to be. Since we let our kids take over too much has changed. The office decor is revolting, and as for all these new people around . . . I don’t recognise the place. I was asking a group of people in the kitchen what they thought of the rugby test match and most said they didn’t watch rugby.’
‘Well, you can’t expect women to’, replied Owen, ‘but these Chinese and Indians just don’t care about that stuff. And another thing, I was telling a really funny joke the other day about Jewish lawyers, Mãori lawyers and Indian lawyers and nobody laughed. A few stalked out . . . bloody cheek! This is our firm but I am beginning to feel like a stranger.’
At another lunchtime gathering, several of the administrative and paralegal staff were talking about the new offices. Some liked the modern feel of the place and its sweeping harbour views, while others were nostalgic about the old premises.
‘I don’t like this open-plan stuff’, complained Mai Ling, ‘you can’t talk without everybody listening to you. I have to go outside to speak to my boyfriend on my mobile. Costs a lot more, too.’
‘We are too far from the shops’, was the opinion of Candy Wood, ‘and the cafés here are just too expensive’.
‘Yeah, I got moaned at the other day for being on Facebook’, said Brian Talanoa, ‘even though it was about the new environmental initiative we are working on. You get the feeling everyone knows everyone’s business, and that big brother—and sister—are spying on you. But what I do like is that this is a nice place to go jogging.’
‘I like the open-plan thing’, said Candy, ‘I hated being stuck in that cramped coffin next to Mr Wynne’s office. We chat where we are; it’s much friendlier than before.’
‘I know’, replied Mai, ‘we can hear you all the time! And we do have other problems with
the new set-up. Some lawyers have complained that they often need to discuss private matters with clients over the phone and can’t always take the calls in the meeting rooms. They moan that it is only the grumpy old men who have their own office. And no one got asked what they wanted in the new offices. Seems like Catherine the Great did it all by herself. And of course she is in the corner with the best views. From where I sit I can’t even see outside.’
The old boys’ club
One day, Anand and Pauline were in a meeting room discussing an issue that had arisen with a Mãori community in the Bay of Islands. A plan to develop a new community centre had fallen foul of local council regulations because of concerns about the safety of the site on top of a cliff. The two lawyers had become firm friends since joining the firm within the same week two years ago.
‘This has been a fantastic career move for me’, enthused Anand. ‘Working for a distinguished law firm really opens doors. Mark and Cathy have been really supportive and winning some of the cases we have taken on is incredibly gratifying. I recall that time we won the case over the toxic fertilisers used on a farm near the Waikato River. Both Mark and Cathy came to court in Hamilton for a week to give me a hand.’
‘I am not so sure’, responded Pauline. ‘I was happy when they agreed to pay off my student loan when I joined. That really helped, so I should be more grateful. Working with Mãori communities and businesses is great but sometimes I get the feeling that I am just a token representative. There are only two female lawyers here too—it still feels like an old boys’ club to me. I have never been invited to the O’Connell Club for drinks with the grumpy old men, though they seem to take all the male lawyers there. But I am not even sure I want to go. There are only a few women or Mãori members.’
‘Well, I’ve never been invited either’, replied Anand. ‘And I would not go. I don’t drink alcohol. And I heard Brian complain that he went a few times on Fridays but felt awkward there, and he didn’t like it that he felt he couldn’t leave till 9 p.m. His wife really moaned at him. I must say, they do demand a lot from us. I had to miss my son’s soccer tournament last weekend.’
‘Well, I don’t seem to have time for much of a social life myself’, Pauline remarked. ’I seem to get out of here well after seven most days and I have spent a lot of time out of town on business this year. I have asked for some help on cases, but when I spoke to Jack about it he was very curt with me. Said we were too short-staffed. Yet when the partners need more staff they even hire temps.’
Meanwhile, after a meeting, a few of the paralegal staff had stayed behind in one of the meeting rooms to talk about their jobs. Anna Ivanova was clearly unhappy. ‘When I joined I was told that that I would get a salary increase if I had a good performance review. So how good is 4 per cent? That is barely above the cost of living increase everyone else got. And since I got that contract for my brother’s property company, you would think I would have been given a bonus for that alone. Telling me I had done a good job is one thing—being properly rewarded is quite another.’ What she did not say was that she had given her brother some confidential information about one of his competitors, who was also a client of the firm. Jack had suspected this but could not prove it. He had, however, voiced his opinion to Owen, who had said nothing about it to Anna.
‘So you think that is bad!’ exclaimed Mai. ‘I got no increase except the 2 per cent everyone got. You don’t even know what they expect from you or how you are going to be judged in these performance reviews. In mine Mr Wynne said that I was too slow to process contracts and that I make too many mistakes. When I asked him what mistakes I had made he said he had seen quite a few but had just corrected them himself. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. And when I asked if I could handle the McArthur contract myself he told me I did not have enough experience. He did not say one nice thing about what I have done. He just dumps work on me then goes off to play golf!’
Candy chipped in, ‘I don’t think things are so bad here. We have a lot of fun. The Sunday hike and picnic was a great idea of Cathy’s and it was really funny when they put ants down Pauline’s top. Boy, did she squeal.’
‘Well, she was really angry’, Anna remarked, ‘and embarrassed too. She didn’t think it was so funny. And Anand did not like it when someone made a joke about the food he had brought.’
‘Some people have no sense of humour’, said Candy as she left.
‘She thinks she’s special, just because she is a sexy redhead’, was Mai’s opinion. ‘I think she and Mark are having an affair. I saw them the other day at Vinnie’s, laughing and giggling. I think she was quite drunk.’ Mai had also emailed a few ‘fiery redhead’ cartoons to her friends in the office and uploaded them to her Facebook and Instagram pages. She had also told some of her colleagues that Candy had had to pay a fine for driving over the alcohol limit and that she had heard she had been fired from her previous job for drinking at lunchtime.
John Carlton, the accountant, was pondering his future. He had been hired after a chance introduction to Jack and Owen at the O’Connell Club. Over a few drinks they had indicated that they were looking for an accountant, who, in due course, would take over the supervision of many of the administrative and paralegal staff. Jack had spoken of a ‘type of general manager role’ that would allow the partners to manage the lawyers while the accountant supervised the rest of the staff.
However, nine months later, John was still managing only four of the staff and the restructuring of the firm had not taken place. Owen had said this was on hold until people had settled into the new offices, but after three months in the new premises, despite several inquiries, John was still not convinced it would go ahead. He had also believed that when he had enrolled for an MBA his fees would be paid by the law firm. He based this on a conversation with Jack, also in the club, about supporting him financially. However, when Jack saw that the qualification would cost over $30 000 he said he had never agreed to pay such a high amount. He said that as far as he knew university fees were usually only about $6000 p.a. and that is the most the firm would pay.
- Identify the reasons for employees resisting the change to an open-plan office approach.
- Explain what the partners might have done better to have minimised the resistance.
- Analyse the barriers to communication (‘noise’) that appear to exist in the law firm.
- Discuss how they could be overcome.
- Discuss the sources of power the partners and others appear to have and the impact
- What influence tactics have been used by some of the partners and employees and how effective might they have been?