‘I Want to Smack People in the Face’: Toxic Culture at Prestigious Legal Publisher Revealed

‘Should we bother giving them a bollocking or can we not be arsed?’

by Polly Smythe

26 February 2024

Protesters hold placards accusing Legal 500 of union busting. Photo: Unite
Protesters hold placards accusing Legal 500 of union busting. Photo: Unite

A company which ranks law firms is facing legal action after allegedly firing two workers on “bogus charges” in retaliation for union organising. The alleged union-busting comes after the company’s toxic workplace culture was revealed, with managers complaining that they cannot “be arsed” to give staff “a bollocking” and joking about wanting to “smack people in the face”.

On 17 November last year the two workers, Lily and Harry – who spoke to Novara Media using false names over concerns that their firing could harm future job prospects – were sacked on the spot from Legal 500 for “underperformance.”

The double firing came only four days after Unite had written to the company announcing that the union had reached the number of members necessary to apply for statutory union recognition.

Legal 500 publishes a prestigious annual ranking of law firms, rating their ability to provide, “the most cutting edge and innovative advice to corporate counsel.”

Workers at the Fleet Street based company say the organising push was in response to a toxic and intimidating management culture. That culture was captured in internal messages sent between managers, and obtained by the Unite trade union and seen by Novara Media. The union is not naming the managers.

In the messages, one manager says: “Should we bother giving them a bollocking or can we not be arsed?”

“It makes no difference”, the other replies. “We’re just wasting our breath and we have to be all cuddly and nice or else they’ll start banging on about their mental health FFS.”

“It’s the blatant yawning and face like a smacked arse thing that really gets to me,” says the first.

The other manager says: “I want to smack people in the face tbh.”

To which the first manager replies: “Haha – so do I!”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham described the messages as “appalling” and “reflective of the contempt that The Legal 500 shows to its workforce.”

“They also demonstrate the appalling environment in which two of their employees were sacked on bogus charges for union organising,” she said.

“It was a clear attempt to silence and disarm the organising movement,” said Lily, one of the sacked workers. “They wanted to union bust and discourage union activity.”

Both workers were fired by management over an online call. “It took all of 15 minutes, and then I was sacked,” Lily said.

Harry, who had worked at the company for over three years, said he was told by management that his role was, “no longer viable from a business perspective.”

Legal 500 is part of the Legalease Group, which describes itself as a “global leader in the provision of legal market information.” In 2023, the company made £6,738,604 in profit.

“In the beginning of organising, I felt that a union would be beneficial for the workplace,” said Harry. “Now, it feels like a necessity.”

Harry was surprised by the “intensity of the hostility and resistance” to the union. At the start of the campaign, when he was approaching colleagues to talk about the union, he was suddenly called into a meeting by senior management and interrogated about his organising activity. “That was the first and very key indicator that our unionisation efforts were not going to be met with smiles and friendliness,” he said.

While the reason given for the terminations was underperformance, both workers and the union argue that missing deadlines is commonplace in the job, with the culture of overwork forcing staff to work unpaid overtime on evenings and weekends to finish work.

“If everyone was sacked for missing a deadline, they wouldn’t have a team left,” said Lily.

Workers began organising in November 2022, in response to low pay, lack of pay transparency, pay disparities, lack of holiday, and productivity pressures.

“Anytime we approached management individually about issues, we were blown off,” said Harry. “We weren’t being heard.”

Both workers appealed their dismissals, arguing that the terminations did not follow the standard and established disciplinary procedure, whereby underperforming workers are given a warning and put on probation. Neither received a response.

It’s not just workers who are being stonewalled by Legal 500. Unite says that the company has not responded to any union correspondence since last November, despite emailing current staff claiming to be “engaging” with the union.

Since the firing, workers say that Legal 500 has continued in its opposition to the union, employing a variety of tactics to undermine the ongoing organising effort. Workers point to the fact that new hires are starting on higher salaries, and that salaries across the board have been raised.

Additionally, the company has suddenly installed cameras with audio recording capacities around the office, which workers allege is in response to the organising.

This hasn’t deterred workers, who have submitted a formal request for union recognition to the Central Arbitration Committee, which is currently considering their application.

With only 12% of workers in the private sector in a union, attempts to win new recognition agreements are crucial in increasing density in the private sector.

Unite regional officer Will Searby said: “It’s no surprise that an employer hostile to workers having an independent voice also has managers showing such hostility to their employees. Workers know that the only sure way to address this kind of disrespect is through organising.

“The Legal 500 need to reverse these dismissals and work with Unite to detoxify its workplace environment. This would be in the best interests of its workforce and the company.”

Legal 500 did not reply to a request for comment.

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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