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Blog - Why is the legal profession so far behind when it comes to dealing with bullying and sexual harassment?

Why is the legal profession so far behind when it comes to dealing with bullying and sexual harassment?

Posted by Tracy Powley 20/05/19

HammerThe profession which should be the guardians of good practice and role modelling, when it comes behaviour at work, has just been exposed as having one of the worst track records. The survey by the International bar association (covering almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries) shows levels of bullying in the UK are above the international average with 62% of female respondents and 41% of male respondents reporting that they had been bullied at work. The international averages were 55% and 30% - a marked difference.

38% of female and 6% of male respondents also reported they had been sexually harassed at work.

IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto said “Sexual harassment is inappropriate in any field. But it is particularly repugnant in the legal profession. Law is one of the very few sectors that requires, as a condition of entry and as an ongoing obligation, the highest ethical standards from its practitioners.”

So, what has led to the sector being so slow to address these issues?

Many partnerships have been male-led for a long time, often with privileged backgrounds - does this lead to a sense of entitlement? Has there been complacency around the need for change?

Does the partnership model make it more challenging for the leadership team to hold each other to account? If one equity partner is displaying inappropriate behaviour, will other partners speak out and address this with them?

Is there a lack of leadership development for partners and heads of depts? And therefore are they simply not sure how to step in and manage a situation where behaviour has crossed the line?  Do they tend to see the people management side (especially the tricky bits) as the job of HR...?

We would love to hear your views.....

It is possible to change any of these factors....where there is a desire to change. And that has to come from the top.

The firms we have worked with in this area have recognised the need for radical change in behaviours and are reaping the benefits of helping to bring clarity to a tricky topic.

And they have done this, not through labouring the legislative context and focusing on case law (which of all professions the legal sector could be forgiven to gravitating towards!) but through helping to open up discussions about where the lines are and what is appropriate and inappropriate.

We need to encourage people to discuss this area without fear of judgement or recrimination. And we need to address the practical scenarios people are likely to encounter in their day to day work…

  • Is it Ok to comment on someone’s appearance for example?
  • When does a bit of banter become something unacceptable?
  • Can you ever give someone a hug at work?    
  • What happens if it’s a client making a sexist comment?

All of us, lawyers or not, need an opportunity to discuss these questions, to bring clarity to a topic where there are many shades of grey. We need to open these conversations up - that’s where understanding grows.

And within a partnership group, we need a safe space to discuss how partners will support each other and hold each other accountable.

Without unified and clear leadership from the top, change will continue to be dangerously slow.

For more information on how we work with Law firms to help address and prevent harassment and inappropriate behaviour call us for a confidential discussion on 01903 732 782 or email us. 

Tracy Powley
Tracy Powley

Stella Chandler and I founded Focal Point on a shared belief that a training course run in isolation doesn't work. We passionately believe there must be support both before and after the training or coaching session itself for it to make a difference. When I am not facilitating sessions with clients or looking at ways to grow the Focal Point business, you will find me in a calming yoga class...

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