The International Bar Association has published the results of its largest survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. Shockingly, of the 6,980 respondents from 135 countries, one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents have been affected by bullying in the workplace. The statistics also found that one in three female respondents had been subject to sexual harassment along with one in 14 male respondents.
The behaviour I experienced was in three firms where I worked; a small City firm, a mid-size City firm and a mid-size high street firm. I have only been qualified for six years, so these experiences are whilst I was a trainee/junior solicitor.
I have had male colleagues make sexual innuendos including rude and sexually explicit comments. I have also experienced male colleagues invade my personal space by unnecessarily reaching over me, intentionally brushing past me, sitting right against me when there was no need and making inappropriate comments about my clothes.
In one firm, a male senior partner once called me into a conference room to discuss a case that had come to fruition. He stood up, pulled me up from my chair and hugged me tight to say well done. I was newly-qualified and did not know how I should have responded, but it made me feel sick, as it was uncalled for and inappropriate.
In the same firm, two male colleagues and a female colleague, all criminal defence solicitors, would constantly make 'rape' jokes. Day by day, the 'jokes' got worse. It got so out of hand on one occasion when they joked about a rape victim "asking for it", that another solicitor in the office snapped. I was a trainee solicitor at the time and to stay 'friends' with everyone I felt I had to quietly endure this, even though there were times I wanted to scream at them to stop as it was not funny. I could have reported it to the senior partner, but these colleagues were very valued because they billed the most at the firm and I felt that if I raised concerns it would not be taken seriously.
As I was usually caught off guard with the behaviour it meant my automatic reaction was to either ignore it, pretend I did not notice, or laugh it off, even though it made me feel very uncomfortable. I do not think my colleagues set out to intentionally hurt me, so I never reported it.
I found that because of my happy, bubbly personality, certain colleagues felt I was easy going and they could do and say whatever they felt like.
I am a sexual abuse survivor, but I should not have to tell anyone this. We should all be mature enough to understand that some words and actions are not acceptable in the work environment regardless of anyone's sensitivities. But at the same time, I believe we should be warier of colleagues who may be fighting a tough inner battle that we know nothing about.
In terms of support available, I felt very much in the dark about support services for solicitors. I relied on friends and colleagues, whose advice was not to rock the boat and to ignore bad behaviour. In hindsight, I wish I had had the courage and confidence to face people head on.
I would have loved to have called the SRA and be guided to a helpline just to talk things through. On one occasion I did call the SRA and burst into tears on the phone – the advice I received was to report the firm to the SRA, which was not something I would have done.
I wish I had stood up for myself at the time to nip bad behaviour in the bud at the first instance.
Comment from our president Christina Blacklaws:
"We will not tolerate sexual harassment or bullying in the legal sector. Just as anyone is protected by the law, they should also be protected by employers - law firms included - which have a duty of care to their employees, contractors, clients and visitors.
Working environments should be safe for all, with clear policies to prevent harassment as well as accessible, safe procedures to deal with any complaints.
Anyone who has experienced sexual harassment should be able to feel they can report it safely and with the confidence they will be taken seriously.
Solicitors have professional and ethical obligations that mean anyone found guilty of harassment is likely to face disciplinary action by the regulator as well as any civil or criminal proceedings.
A Women in Law Pledge - the result of widespread collaboration across the legal profession - will launch next month. It commits signatories to tackle sex discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment wherever it occurs in the workplace.
It is incumbent on all of us to work to end bullying and harassment of any kind."
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
Our Pastoral care helpline for solicitors experiencing personal, financial, professional, or employment difficulties is open 9 to 5 Monday to Friday on 020 7320 5795
We will be looking in depth at issues around gender equality in the profession at our International symposium on gender equality, taking place in London on Thursday 20 – Friday 21 June 2019
Issues around sexual harassment in the workplace are covered in our Women in Leadership in Law report
Read the International Bar Association report: Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession
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