Wake-up call for lawyers on bullying and harassment

Bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession, with Australians among the world’s worst offenders, according to a just-released global survey Us Too? Bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession commissioned by the International Bar Association (IBA).

The survey, of 7000 lawyers in 135 countries, reveals approximately one in two female respondents and one in three men have been bullied in connection with their employment. One in three women and one in 14 men have been sexually harassed.

Respondents came from across the spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary. The largest-ever survey of its kind in the legal profession, Us Too? was conducted in six languages (English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish).

In a letter published along with the report, IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto says the profession must confront the problem.

“For the first time at a global level, this research provides quantitative confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession,” he says. “It joins a number of diverse country-specific studies, from Ireland to New Zealand to South Korea in forcing the profession to confront these insidious issues.”

The survey also shows serious under-reporting of bullying and sexual harassment. In 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases, the targets do not report. The most common reasons are the status of the perpetrator, the fear of repercussions, and the incident being endemic to the workplace.

Policies and training do not appear to be having the desired effect, the report says, with respondents in workplaces with programs in place being as likely to be bullied or sexually harassed as those in workplaces without them.

Not unsurprisingly, targets are leaving unsupportive workplaces. Some 65% of those who have been bullied and 37% of those sexually harassed are considering leaving their jobs. Some are contemplating leaving the profession altogether.

These findings should serve as a wake-up call for the profession, the report says, and provide “empirical validation” of what have often been dismissed as anecdotes or “a few bad apples”.

“Bullying and sexual harassment are widespread. They are chronically under-reported. When incidents are reported, the workplace’s responses are inadequate and often exacerbate the situation. Such conduct is driving people away from their workplaces and the profession as a whole,” the report says.

“Change is hard but it is possible – and urgently necessary…. There are significant ethical and legal issues that should compel action…. Every member of the legal profession has personal responsibility for eliminating bullying and sexual harassment from our workplaces.”

In some cases, specific country data are available. New Zealand is not among these countries although it is referenced several times in the report (including the March 2018 street protest by law students after an incident “at one powerful firm”.)

The report also mentions last year’s Colmar Brunton survey where 57% of New Zealand lawyers said they had been bullied and 18% sexually harassed at some point in their careers.

Australia is one country where the IBA has produced specific data – in fact, Australia had one of the highest response rates to the survey, with 937 practitioners taking part.

According to the IBA’s findings, Australia also has some of the highest reported rates of bullying and sexual harassment in the world: 73% of Australian female respondents and 50% of males say they have been bullied in the workplace.

Rates of sexual harassment are higher than the global average: 47% of Australian female respondents and 13% of men.

However, the report highlights a “perception paradox”: in countries where there is strong awareness of the issues and workplaces have taken steps to address bullying and harassment, rates of reporting are particularly high.

Globally, bullying and sexual harassment rates are highest in government legal jobs (about 69%), followed by barristers’ chambers (48%) and judicial workplaces (46%).

The report notes it is “not surprising” that bullying and harassment are widespread in the law. “Researchers have identified characteristics that increase the likelihood of negative workplace behaviours,” it says, including “where leadership is male-dominated, where the power structure is hierarchical, where lower-level employees are largely dependent on superiors for advancement and where power is highly concentrated in a single person.”

The IBA has come up with 10 key recommendations: raising awareness, revising and implementing policies and standards, regular and customised training, increasing dialogue and best-practice sharing, taking ownership, gathering data and improving transparency, exploring flexible reporting models, engaging younger members of the profession, appreciating the wider context of the conduct, and maintaining momentum.

In their own words: the effects of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace

“I was systematically bullied to the extent I considered, for the first time, taking my life. My confidence was shattered. I began to doubt myself in every aspect of my life, work and personal. The advice I received from the law society was appalling. It was, ‘just get on with it’.” Female, law firm

“I left the marketplace, considered changing careers and contemplated suicide.” Female, law firm, New Zealand

“Senior management talk a good story about bullying but when it comes to big-billing lawyers or senior partner involvement, then the real values show themselves. Until firms start living their values, what they are really saying is, “all staff are equal but some are more equal than others’.” Male, law firm, Italy

“The partners closed ranks around the perpetrator [of seriously inappropriate physical contact]. The firm did nothing to sanction him and later promoted him into a more serious but marginally less public position. They offered me no support or reassurance about my career. I felt I had no choice but to leave.” Female, law firm, UK

“I was advised by the [female] practice manager that if I showed a sexual interest in my principal, he would be nicer to me. That was after he had thrown a phone at my head.” Female, law firm, UK

“Even if a company says all the right things, it’s very easy to be branded someone who is a  troublemaker, especially if the perpetrator has a record of long service at the firm or is a senior member.” Male, in-house, Australia

“My experience is that it does not matter whether there is a policy in place or not. If the individual is high achieving and productive, then management will not sanction or discipline that individual.” Female, government, Canada

“I was told by a senior partner at a top law firm that despite my work performance, the firm would not keep me on because I am a lesbian.” Female, in-house, Canada

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