Baker McKenzie tackles Johannesburg ‘management issues’ with leadership change and beefed up HR
Baker McKenzie is implementing a ‘three-step plan’ to address management issues at its Johannesburg office that include a change in leadership and measures to make it easier for staff to raise confidential concerns about their treatment.
The plan was unveiled to the office at a town hall yesterday, but the global firm said it had been ‘carefully reviewing’ issues relating to the office’s management for several months.
The office culture came under the spotlight last Friday, when UK news site Roll on Friday reported that office managing partner Morné van der Merwe had stepped down and that his duties were being handled by partners from the firm’s Amsterdam office.
RoF highlighted confusion over Van der Merwe’s role, given that he was still being listed as office managing partner last week. He had in fact stepped down in April, the firm confirmed today.
Bakers’ plan comes under three headings: ‘a change in leadership’, ‘listening to and reviewing people’s concerns’, and ‘a commitment to the future and commercial success of this office’.
“Global and local leadership are clear that this is an ongoing process and that it will take time, and therefore we are not in a position to comment further on various issues and actions at present,” a spokesperson said. “However, the firm is determined to create a positive working environment and foster an inclusive culture, and is doing this using systems previously put in place to ensure we only tolerate the highest standards of conduct in our workplaces.”
“In the nine years Baker McKenzie has been operating in South Africa, we have built one of the country’s leading law offices, but there is still work to do as the office grows and matures alongside our clients, supporting a culture where all of our colleagues can thrive and make the most of their talents.”
The firm confirmed that two partners from the firm’s Amsterdam office, which has a close relationship with the Johannesburg office due to a history of shared mandates, were currently supporting the office, which is also in the process of appointing an HR lead.
It added that while it took any concerns ‘extremely seriously’ when raised, it was ‘taking additional steps to enhance our confidential workplace behaviour escalation system… which will enable any person to come forward with any concerns with the confidence that these are being treated appropriately and confidentially’.
It added that the transitional leadership team, along with regional and global leaders would be joining existing employee forums to listen to any concerns.
Van der Merwe was elevated to the managing partner role in 2017 having been one of 16 lawyers and 15 professional staff to establish the office in 2012 when their previous firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf collapsed. The former head of corporate has a particular focus on the mining sector and is highly rated.
Bakers’ Johannesburg office comes under the remit of former London office head Alex Chadwick, who stepped down from his London role a year early in June to become CEO of Europe, Middle East and Africa operations.
Like many large international law firms, Bakers has unveiled a series of initiatives to improve its ESG credentials in recent years, which include the establishment of a taskforce in June last year to improve racial and ethnic diversity across its 77 offices while in 2019 it became one of the first law firms to commit itself to achieving gender diversity targets.