Bullying, discrimination and sexual harrassment in law firms

You may recall my post suggesting a register of firms who should not be allowed to take on Articled Clerks because of the way in which they have treated clerks in the past.

However, I was thinking that this was an area of wider concern for the legal profession, not just Articled Clerks. There is no office or department in the Law Institute which can deal with any concerns that young lawyers have with bullying, discrimination or sexual harrassment in the office. The Law Institute is the closest thing we have to a “union” (apart, of course, from the JLU) but it does not offer any help to its members in this regard. There should be provision for young lawyers to get advice, and perhaps for mediation or some kind of process to resolve issues within firms.

In some areas of the legal profession, I get the sense that there is still a feeling that bullying, discrimination and sexual harrassment are all just part and parcel of being a lawyer, and if you complain, you’re a whinger or a wuss who shouldn’t be working in the law anyway.

To my absolute horror, I have heard of some young women of my acquaintance accepting inappropriate sexual advances as part of the job. “I just ignore it, and tell the guy in question to get lost,” said one woman. “I have really good clients and a good standing in the firm, so I can’t complain really.” There is a fear that if you do or say anything about it, you will be blacklisted as a potential liability, and no firm will ever hire you.

To an extent, the response to problematic conduct is very important. This is why it would be good to have an advisory service as to how best deal with issues. I have been the subject of conduct which could be sexual harrassment, but I turned the matter into a joke, and it never happened again. I suspect the person involved was somewhat embarrassed. However, after some years in the law, I have developed a thick skin and a quick tongue. I was not so quick in former years. When I was still a student, I received an inappropriate proposition in a job interview, and instead of saying anything (or slapping the person who made the proposition), I simply chose to ignore the conduct. I rather wish I had slapped that interviewer, but I was so shocked that I had no idea as to how to respond.

Of course, a criticism which will be raised is that by setting up such a service, you may get complaints from vexatious people, paranoid people who are overly sensitive, or people who have an axe to grind. However, this is not a reason to give up or say that it is all too hard. This is just something which will have to be factored in the way in which complaints are dealt with.

My suggestion is that the first port of call should be an anonymous advice service for lawyers to call. Sometimes it is better to say politely that something is out of line if the conduct occurs again, rather than to be aggressive or make a big issue of it.

The next step after that should be for the complainant to bring the issue up with the person whose conduct is complained of. It could be that no harm was intended, and that a simple apology is all that is needed to defuse the matter. Otherwise, a dispute could escalate needlessly. For example, I witnessed a situation where an offhand comment was made which was inappropriate, but the person who made it didn’t realise it was offensive. The complainant did not tell the person who made the comment that she was hurt and offended, but made a formal complaint to Human Resources. The matter then turned into a drama, when it could have been resolved by bringing it up in confidence with the person who made the comment, who would then have made a sincere apology.

If no resolution occurred after bringing the matter up with the person, or conduct continued to occur, the next step would be to take the matter up within the firm. But problems arise where the firm cannot be neutral in its judgment. I know of a situation where a lawyer had to endure constant comments about the shapeliness of her physique and suggestions as to how good she would be in bed. The problem was that these comments emanated from the very person who had the final say in the firm as to whether such conduct was appropriate. Of course, he decided that his conduct was entirely appropriate and that the young lawyer in question was clearly neurotic and immature for getting upset…

Where there is repeated inappropriate conduct, or a refusal by the firm to condone the conduct, the lawyer could then contact someone at the Law Institute to mediate, and, if appropriate, bring disciplinary action. There are some types of conduct which we shouldn’t have to put up with in this day and age, and some lawyers out there who think they have carte blanche to behave as they wish. I think it’s time to convince those lawyers otherwise.

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2 Comments

Filed under feminism, law, law firms, morale

2 responses to “Bullying, discrimination and sexual harrassment in law firms

  1. The Angry Bee

    Sadly it’s not just lawyers – anyone who has had to go through the current system in place for breaches of equal opportunity laws could attest to the fact that it has to be the worst, most fruitless exercise ever. The whole thing needs to be overhauled – and I hope to produce something public about this issue shortly… I’ll keep you posted!

  2. cherry ripe

    I’m concerned that the new IR laws are going to further entrench the vulnerability of young lawyers. Imagine the fear of speaking out about bullying, harrassment and unsustainable work conditions if you’re vulnerable to summary dismissal?

    There’s a huge rally tomorrow morning, I’m going down with the kids and the fella. These laws are extreme to say the least – and specifically targetted at destroying unions, rather than at improving our skills base or readiness for new work conditions.

    I’m no fan of “union thuggery” (which does exist to some extent), but this is ridiculous.

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