One in three female attorneys has been sexually harassed at work, and half have been bullied, according to a global survey that brings law firms into a #MeToo movement that started in Hollywood and has engulfed much of the corporate world.
The International Bar Association survey — based on the online responses of 6,980 attorneys from 135 countries — found sexual harassment in the industry is “common” and bullying is “rife.”
Since the #MeToo movement kicked off two years ago, law firms have been hired to advise corporations on how to handle harassment allegations. IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto said attorneys needed to get their own hiring and workplace behavior in order because of the risk being called out for hypocrisy.
“I hope the report will be a wake-up call for the profession,” Kieran Pender, the report’s author and an adviser for the IBA, said by phone. “It’s long been suspected by many people in the profession that bullying and harassment were widespread,” but it’s “quite shocking” to see the numbers, he said.
It’s the latest episode in a movement that’s seen women around the world speak out about behavior ranging from inappropriate comments to rape and assault, in the wake of allegations of serial predation by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, which he denies.
To be sure, the poll was publicly available online and it’s possible that people who had experienced bullying and harassment were more likely to respond. The IBA said it’s the largest-ever survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal industry, was distributed to IBA members, and is consistent with other research.
“Around the world, it will be lawyers who are at the forefront of cases that test the efficacy of current laws,” Julia Gillard, the former Australian prime minister who now chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, said in a foreword to the document. “The legal profession can only step up to this role with integrity if it makes sure its own house is in order.”
In three-quarters of all sexual harassment cases, the incident is never reported, according to the report.
Law firms “should examine their workplace culture and procedures for dealing with complaints,” said Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, which represents attorneys in England and Wales. “As a profession which strives to uphold justice, the legal sector needs to be at the forefront of the fight against bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The fact that many law firms are male-dominated with a hierarchical power structure may be part of the problem, the report said, citing an example offered by one female respondent.
“One of the senior partners offered to help me get a training contract, if I went to casinos with him and agreed to ‘get to know him better,’” the woman said. “I never reported it because it would have meant exclusion from the project. Nothing happens to the partners.”
Some men also said they’d been harassed. One, who worked at a U.K. barristers’ chambers — where trial lawyers are based — said his supervisor often said she wanted to have sex with him and “any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it.”
One in three male lawyers surveyed has been bullied at work, and one in 14 has been sexually harassed, the IBA found.