Hockey, The Legal Profession, and Systemic Failures

We’re hosting The Authentic Lawyer Summit because there are systemic problems in the legal profession.

That’s not just my view - that’s a perspective that is backed up by countless studies and reports, not to mention plenty of anecdotes.

Sometimes it feels that many people who are working in this profession - especially leaders - have been in the system for so long that they truly just don’t grasp the realities of their colleagues, peers, and the public.

Let’s be clear - by no means am I defending them. I’m just saying that ignorance and a lack of accountability for past actions is definitely part of the problem.

We watched a parallel story play out in Canada very recently in the hockey space. Front page news. Complete corporate disaster. The reputation of many people completely destroyed.

It was the rotten culture of Hockey Canada finally exposed, and a group of leaders who thought they could - like they have done for years and years - make the problem go away by denying that there was a problem and by shirking accountability. This in spite of all the evidence to the contrary: in the court of public opinion, in the eyes of so many who had been adversely affected by their actions, and based on the cold hard facts.

The leaders thought wrong, and boy have they paid the price. And that’s certainly a good thing, because change was desperately needed.

The impact:

  • Their sponsors - some of the biggest companies in Canada - dropped their sponsorship of Hockey Canada.
  • They were criticized by pretty much every major media publication in Canada, not to mention tons in the US and around the world.
  • Many of the top hockey players in the world and the Prime Minister of Canada did not mince words about their disgust with the organization.
  • The organization’s reputation - and the reputation of many of their key leaders - were destroyed forever.

It was interesting watching from the sidelines because I know some of the key people involved - including the person who was leading the charge on behalf of Hockey Canada and who has borne the brunt of so much outrage. It’s pretty hard to unite a country, but Hockey Canada did a really great job of uniting an entire country against them.

(Note: since I wrote this article, the entire board and the CEO of Hockey Canada resigned and additional sponsors also dropped their commitments to Hockey Canada)

The main person getting crucified is my former colleague who is an incredibly nice person, an incredibly quiet person, and someone who doesn’t deserve some of the outrage being directed to her (and let’s just say there has been an awful lot of outrage directed towards her, including plenty of vulgarity and inappropriate comments).

Though let’s be clear - she said a number of things that were not good and that were generally considered to be completely inappropriate and ignorant. Some were absolutely indefensible. And some were very very foolish.

But I also have little doubt that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes in terms of talking points that she was expected to follow and her being set up to fail (though it was - to be clear - her choice to go through with what she may or may not have been asked to do).

There is also the concept of the glass cliff, which is a concept in which women and minority groups are more likely to be elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly (and consequently have a higher likelihood of failure). It’s a concept that I was not familiar with until I showed a draft of this article to someone, but that’s presumably since I am operating from a place of privilege.

And while I have no actual knowledge of how she ended up in this role just 2 months ago in the middle of an ongoing investigation into Hockey Canada’s culture, let’s just say you don’t have to be a genius to figure out why she might have been selected for her role (and that’s not to say she wasn’t qualified; but there are at least a few demographic boxes that she checked that past leaders did not).

On the other hand, the fact that Hockey Canada thought a lawyer (e.g. my former colleague) would be a good fit to deal with a PR issue was just a terrible idea - but that’s the kind of thing you do when you don’t truly think you have a PR issue (and instead just have a legal issue) because you’ve been able to dodge accountability so many times in the past.

When you have people who have been in the system for so long who are blind to the change, it’s no wonder they did such a terrible job managing a crisis. And how they thought that their “master class of denial, deflection, whataboutism and arrogance” would somehow work.

Because the problem is that it has worked. And they’ve gotten away with it over and over again.

And when you’ve been in the system so long, it’s possible to not grasp what’s really going on; what the public believes; and wow others are being impacted by your actions and your words.

It’s the years of not asking and not listening that leads to these moments of gaslighting, where you make a series of terrible decisions that don’t help anyone other than yourself.

What made a difference this time? Why could they not get away with it here?

It’s because finally, the sponsors did something about it. One by one, they dropped their sponsorships. Some of the biggest companies in Canada finally distancing themselves from a very toxic organization.

That’s when Hockey Canada appears to have realized they had a problem. Because now money was on the line, and it was clear that the public, the media, and their sponsors had all turned on them.

They were experiencing what it was like - for once - to be held accountable for their actions.

But unfortunately in the legal profession, we haven’t seen a lot of clients voting with their wallets. And if I’ve learned anything in my decade in this profession, is that if things aren’t going to affect the bottom line, then good luck getting a lot of people to change.

We’ve seen lots of talk. But even when those things haven’t been backed up by action and results, there really haven’t been too many implications.

Key players in the legal industry have continued to get away with all sorts of things because the pressure hasn’t been strong enough from clients. And it’s allowed these organizations to ignore these critical systemic issues, by putting the blame on the individuals.

  • The associate who is anxious and is told to meditate their problems away.
  • The assistant who is verbally abused on a daily basis by a partner and is told she needs to be more thick-skinned.
  • The partner who is sexually inappropriate with female colleagues, but isn’t sanctioned because he is making up for his small [insert word here] with a big book of business.

That’s why we’re hosting The Authentic Lawyer Summit.

We’re done complaining and waiting for change to just happen. Because when you have systemic problems, you blame everyone but yourself.

Ignorance is not a great excuse - but there is an element of real ignorance. But wilful blindness is something we absolutely cannot accept.

What we’re saying here is - if your organization is publicly speaking out and saying they care about how women are treated, they care about mental health, and they care about how lawyers from diverse backgrounds are treated - then we’ll see you at our event.

There’s a reason it’s free. And virtual. And really, really accessible.

Does your organization truly care about the stuff they’re saying, or are they simply paying lip service to these things because they know that true action and true accountability isn’t actually required in this profession?

To be clear - some organizations really care. I’ve been on some incredible calls lately where it’s so amazing to see what some firms are doing. In other cases, I’m talking to these law firm leaders who are so passionate about helping their colleagues, but are getting blocked internally by a lack of resources or a lack of commitment from the top.

We’ll be tracking which firms have senior leaders at the event - because I think it’s important for people to see what’s really going on and which firms are ready to truly step up.

And more importantly - we’re ready for ignorance to stop being an excuse. No more arguments of ignorance after something goes wrong.

We’ll be having real conversations about serious, systemic issues.

We will not be beating around the bush. Because enough is enough.

It’s time to take this stuff seriously. To stop the performative nonsense. To have real conversations, from real people, who have been adversely impacted by the system in which we are living and working (and in many cases, are doing some incredible stuff to make things better for others).

Does that seem like too much to ask?

You can learn more and sign up here.