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Legal disputes are not a values free zone

The Age this weekend ran a story on the treatment of a former employee involved in a dispute with the ANZ Bank in New York.

The treatment of ANZ's former employee was as shocking as it was dehumanising. Media attention has resulted in ANZ publicly distancing itself from the firm, claiming that it was not aware of the tactics being used by its lawyers. The bank's CEO has apologised, admitting it was wrong. There was, however, no report to indicate that the bank had terminated the law firm’s engagement.

The incident raises important questions. What role should a company’s values play in in the conduct and resolution of a dispute? What values should businesses expect their law firms to demonstrate?

Disputes are difficult. The adversarial approach to dispute resolution is culturally ingrained and sometimes difficult to move away from. However, if a business has a dispute, it will invariably involve parties who are or were once the businesses' stakeholders - its employees, customers, suppliers, investors and partners. It is through these relationships that a business projects and embodies its values. So, when an employee is treated disgracefully during a dispute, what message does that send about the extent to which an organisation respects and values its employees? We respect and value our employees, unless of course they have a grievance to resolve…

The lesson is simple: the way in which a business conducts itself during a dispute sends a clear message about the way in which that business values its critical relationships. It is in adversity where values are tested, and disputes present the perfect opportunity for an organisation to be true to its values and ensure that message is clearly conveyed.

Dispute resolution is not, and should not be, a values free zone.

A quick scan of the websites of our largest law firms seems to reveal very little about the values they demonstrate when involved in dispute resolution. We don't expect lawyers to declare their values, but we should. Businesses should engage lawyers who expressly articulate and demonstrate values that align with their own.

So, what should businesses do?

State exactly the kinds of values and behaviours you aim to model when engaged in disputes. For example, acting respectfully and reasonably should be obvious, yet it clearly needs to be made explicit. And, perhaps most importantly, only engage lawyers who are clear about the values and behaviours they model.

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