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Study reveals ‘chronic’ legal workplace harassment; Young Lawyers take action

In 2016 the International Bar Association (IBA) wanted to do some research on the barriers women face in the legal profession, given that there has been gender parity at law schools for about 20 years, yet male partners still far outnumber female partners at law firms.

The result was a 2018 global survey of the legal profession concluding that bullying and sexual harassment are ongoing, chronically underreported and prevalent in every area of the profession. The report, by the IBA in connection with the market research company Acritas, also found that workplace responses are inadequate.

The survey, which resulted in the report, Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession, received 7,000 responses from law firms, in-house and government lawyers and the judiciary in 135 countries.

Among the report’s findings:

  • 1 in 2 female respondents and 1 in 3 male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment
  • 1 in 3 female respondents and 1 in 14 male respondents had been sexually harassed in the workplace
  • Just 1 in 5 legal workplaces are educating their staff to prevent and properly respond to bullying and sexual harassment
  • 57% of bullying targets and 75% of sexual harassment targets did not report the incident
  • Targets do not report due to the status of the perpetrator, fear of repercussions and the incident being endemic to the workplace
  • 65% of respondents who have been bullied and 37% of respondents who have been sexually harassed left or are considering leaving their workplaces.

Kieran Pender of the IBA called the individual responses to the survey “shocking but not surprising,” adding, “it’s long been suspected – and known – that the profession has a problem with these issues.”

Pender presented the findings to a roundtable at the American Bar Association offices in Washington, D.C., in June, which included Young Lawyers Division (YLD) Chair Tommy Preston, YLD secretary Christopher Brown and Josephine Bahn, YLD liaison to the Commission on Women in the Profession who co-chairs YLD’s No Limits, an initiative that offers programming and resources to assist women attorneys as they navigate their careers.

After an exchange of experiences with bullying and sexual harassment, Kara Beverly, a Baltimore employment attorney, pointed to a big problem. “The policies are just posted in the lunch areas; they’re not being lived out,” she said. Ravay Smith, an attorney adviser with the Department of Veterans Affairs, noted that she watched a training video about sexual harassment when she started working there, but said, “I honestly couldn’t tell you who I’m supposed to contact in HR if something were to happen.”

“Particularly on these issues facing women, this is not just a female issue and it’s important for guys to step up and be part of the conversation,” Preston said.

The report listed 10 recommendations for addressing sexual harassment and bullying in the legal profession:

  1. Raise awareness. Spreading the word about the legal profession’s problem is the first step toward fixing it.
  2. Revise and implement policies and standards. Make these policies more effective and with better implementation.
  3. Introduce regular, customized training. Effective training that is the norm, not the exception, can help reduce the prevalence of workplace bullying and sexual harassment.
  4. Increase dialogue and best-practice sharing. Sharing what works and what doesn’t can help solve the problem.
  5. Take ownership. From senior firm leaders to law students, this is everyone’s problem.
  6. Gather data and improve transparency. We don’t have enough data, so we need to gather it openly and with transparency.
  7. Explore flexible reporting models. We need to improve existing reporting channels and explore new ones in order to make reporting a better experience for targets.
  8. Engage with younger members of the profession. Younger legal professionals, who are disproportionately impacted by bullying and sexual harassment, need to play a major role in developing and implementing solutions.
  9. Appreciate the wider context. Mental health challenges, a lack of workplace satisfaction and insufficient diversity are some of the dynamics that need to be understood and addressed collectively.
  10. Maintain momentum. Working together, individuals, workplaces and institutions can eradicate these scourges from the profession.

“Change will not occur overnight, particularly as these issues are not unique to the legal profession but reflective of wider societal challenges,” said Pender. “We hope this will be the first step in forcing people to be clear-eyed about the challenges they face.”

A free CLE for ABA members on the topic is planned, and it will also be addressed at a YLD plenary session at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco in August.

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