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Legal professionals report ‘startling’ rates of bullying and sexual harassment in IBA survey

A new International Bar Association report identifies startling rates of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession and makes 10 recommendations for legal workplaces to address the crisis.

Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, the problem of workplace harassment and abuse has gained unprecedented public attention across the globe. Nowhere has this movement been more impactful than in the U.S., where hundreds of public figures have been dismissed or resigned following allegations of sexual harassment.

As awareness of the nature and extent of inappropriate workplace behavior has grown, the legal profession has begun to grapple with these issues. In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) launched a survey investigating how sexual harassment and bullying affect legal workplaces. It was hoped that this project would provide unparalleled insight into these phenomena and that the resulting data would contribute to meaningful change. The survey was available in six languages and received responses from almost 7,000 legal professionals in 135 countries.

The results are in, and they confirm that bullying and sexual harassment is rife in legal workplaces and that no region or workplace type is immune from these issues.

The survey found that one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied during their legal career. Rates of sexual harassment were also high – affecting one in three female respondents, and one in 14 male respondents.

U.S. legal professionals responded to the survey at high rates – 5% of survey respondents were from the U.S. The data from these professionals indicates that bullying and harassment is even more prevalent in the U.S. than globally. U.S. respondents were 8 percentage points more likely to be bullied and 10 percentage points more likely to be sexually harassed than the worldwide average.

For many law students and young lawyers, these findings won’t come as a surprise. The survey results confirmed that younger members of the profession are disproportionately impacted by bullying and sexual harassment, and were significantly more likely to have been affected within the past 12 months.

These findings are disheartening, particularly for students and young people at the beginning of their legal careers.

It is likely that the alarming rates of bullying and harassment experienced by young lawyers is attributable to the hierarchical nature of many legal workplaces and the role of power imbalance in exacerbating inappropriate workplace behavior. This is consistent with the fact that in most cases, line managers, supervisors and other senior colleagues were the perpetrators of this conduct, and many of the most common forms of bullying were related to supervision.

When this conduct does occur, many young lawyers do not feel able to report incidents to their workplace. Common reasons for not reporting included the profile of the perpetrator and the target’s fear of repercussions. As one respondent from the U.S. recalled, “I didn’t think I would be believed. There were witnesses to [the serious inappropriate physical contact], but I was afraid they would tell people that the act was consensual. No one stopped his behavior at the time.” Another young lawyer from the United Kingdom shared that “it was my first rotation, my first real job, and I just thought this was what you had to go through.”

Worryingly, the survey data indicated that when incidents were reported, the majority of respondents considered their workplace’s response to be insufficient or negligible. Perpetrators were rarely sanctioned, and in many cases, the situation was exacerbated. As a result, many targets were considering leaving or had left their workplace or the profession entirely.

As the Young Lawyer Editorial Board of The American Lawyer recently observed, “some law firms and their membership … diminish reports of misconduct, condone a hostile work environment, and penalize those who speak out about these wrongs. In effect, lawyers can become the antithesis of advocates when it comes to supporting and protecting the victims among them.”

These findings are disheartening, particularly for students and young people at the beginning of their legal careers. But although change is not inevitable, it is possible.

The IBA has articulated 10 recommendations for workplaces and the profession to address this problem. We will be hosting events launching the report in approximately 20 cities, including New York on June 3 and Washington DC on June 4. And if you’re unable to make those in person, the ABA YLD is hosting a webinar on June 12. These events will offer insight on the report and provide an opportunity for attendees to engage with the IBA and local experts on these issues.

We encourage law students and young professionals to get involved in these events – they are free and open to all, IBA membership is not required. We all have a role to play, and as the future of the profession, young lawyers will be critical in affecting real, long-term change.

While these issues will not be addressed overnight, together we can make a difference.

Kieran Pender Kieran Pender is a senior legal advisor with the International Bar Association’s Legal Policy & Research Unit in London, and the author of Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession. He acknowledges the assistance of Sophia Collins.