Last night, I was speaking to a legal colleague who is a second-year solicitor. She had a very negative experience at the firm where she completed her articles. She was sexually harassed in a way which could have come straight out of a text book on “What Not To Do in the Workplace” according to Equal Opportunity Law. Isn’t it ironic that lawyers tell other people how to behave according to the law, but are often the worst offenders in their treatment of their own employees? Fortunately, my friend managed to complete her articles and get a job at another firm where she is doing exceptionally well. But she is not the only one. I know other people who have had some very bad experiences too: someone was physically assaulted by a partner, another person was being bullied at a firm which she later discovered was notorious for bullying its juniors and had been the subject of many complaints to the Law Institute…the list could go on.
Late last year, when my colleague initially told me about what had happened to her, I contacted the Law Institute to see whether she could make a complaint about the sexual harassment she had suffered. I was eventually put through to a sympathetic man from the ethics department who sighed and said that the tale I was telling was all too familiar, but it was not technically in breach of the rules of ethics (which tend to concentrate on things like the handling of trust account moneys etc).
The problem is that (a) articles places are so scarce that articled clerks may feel they have to “put up with” bad behaviour and (b) there is nothing you can do about it anyway if something bad happens. If a firm seriously breaches its duties towards an articled clerk, then the articled clerk should be able to get the Law Institute to do something about it. My colleague has suggested that the Law Institute should maintain a register where people could call up (on an anonymous basis if necessary) and suggest that a particular firm or principal should not be allowed to take on an articled clerk. I think that this is a great idea.