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Legal profession tackles #MeToo

The legal sector has been hit by a string of high-profile harassment cases, prompting self-examination and calls for change. We find out how firms are responding in the wake of such allegations.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2020 7 min read

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  • Law firms still tend to have a male-dominated hierarchy, with top earners and partners being perceived as untouchable
  • Companies are being encouraged to sign up to the Women in Law Pledge, which is committed to supporting a more equal legal profession
  • The importance of training for staff at all levels, as well as opening channels of communication for those raising concerns

The #MeToo movement may have ignited in Hollywood, when the 2017 allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein prompted actors to call out sexual harassment via social media; but it soon extended far beyond the entertainment industry. No sector was immune, and a swathe of high-profile law firms found themselves facing harassment suits.

In 2017, Reed Smith dismissed a London partner after a complaint from a female trainee; in 2018, Baker McKenzie, Dentons, Herbert Smith Freehills and Latham & Watkins all received complaints of inappropriate partner behaviour; in 2019, a Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner was fined £35,000 for sexual activity with an inebriated junior.

These are not isolated cases. In June 2018, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) revealed that sexual harassment and misconduct claims against UK lawyers had increased 58% since the previous November. Meanwhile, the International Bar Association (IBA) reported that, globally, one third of female lawyers had been sexually harassed.

Any imbalance of power opens the door to harassment, but the structure of law firms arguably makes them more susceptible. IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto describes the common model as “male-dominated leadership and an inherently hierarchical power structure, with lower-level employees largely dependent on superiors for advancement”.

There has also been a reluctance to punish profitable partners. “Over the years, sexism and harassment have not been dealt with because the perpetrators are making the firm money,” says Joanna Chatterton, partner and head of the employment team at Fox Williams solicitors. “You have ‘fiefdoms’ within a bigger firm, and a cult of personality around certain individuals who are highly successful.”

Lines blurred between work and social

Encouraging people to build their social lives around work also creates exploitative situations. “Lawyers spend a lot of very intense time with colleagues, there is a lot of alcohol around, and they may behave in ways they wouldn’t if they were sober,” suggests Chatterton. Christmas parties are a flashpoint, but there is no shortage of forums for harassment, including recruitment processes, business travel and social media.

“As a profession that strives to uphold justice and the rule of law, we need to be on the front line in the fight against sexism and harassment”Simon Davis, president, Law Society of England and Wales

A lack of female leadership isn’t helping. Although the profession as a whole is increasingly gender balanced, the same is not true at the top. “According to the Law Society Annual Statistics Report 2018, women holding practising certificates outnumbered men by over 2,000,” says Linda Dack, head of private client and lead on equality and diversity at Watkins & Gunn solicitors. “However, there remains more than twice the number of men at partnership level compared with women.”

Acknowledging the problem is key to the sector combating harassment. The IBA’s 2019 report ‘Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession’, polled 7,000 respondents across 135 countries, and flagged the role of hierarchy and power imbalance in facilitating or exacerbating harassment.

The Us Too? report offers 10 recommendations for addressing the issues. “The IBA is working towards establishing further practical guidance and related tools for firms of all sizes to tackle this insidious behaviour and create better environments for employees,” adds Neto. “Bullying and sexual harassment must have no place in our world, at work or elsewhere. We must not lose the momentum of the #MeToo movement.”

One strategy for changing a patriarchal culture is the Women in Law Pledge, a commitment for gender equality. “As a profession that strives to uphold justice and the rule of law, we need to be on the front line in the fight against sexism and harassment,” says Simon Davis, president of the Law Society of England and Wales. “Firms which sign up to our Women in Law Pledge commit to tackling gender inequality and putting an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Firms must be open and transparent

Protecting whistle-blowers is also essential in achieving any change in culture. The IBA’s research found that victims rarely speak up, and when they do, they are often vilified. “Since the legislation in 1998 to protect whistle-blowers against detrimental treatment and victimisation, the situation has improved,” says Clive Thomas, partner at Watkins & Gunn. “However, real change is only likely to be successful in an open, transparent and supportive environment where there is a culture of accountability.”

Neto agrees: “Legal workplaces must work to create office cultures that support, rather than distrust, reporting of incidents.” He points to firms employing anonymous reporting channels, hotlines, apps and flexible reporting models to ensure people feel safe raising concerns.

Internal procedures and codes of conduct can remodel workplace culture, but they have to be promoted and adhered to. IBA research found that even if firms have anti-harassment policies in place, they are often underused and ineffective.

“Almost all law firms have procedures surrounding anti-harassment, whistle-blowing, equality and diversity,” says Thomas. “But it’s no use if these policies are just pieces of paper in the top drawer; they have to be living, breathing documents. It’s about ensuring the principles which underpin them are embedded into the culture and workings of an organisation.”

Fox Williams links performance reviews with adherence to its code of conduct. “We have a set of behaviours around culture which we adopted a number of years ago, and when we’re looking at partners’ annual reviews and remuneration, how they match up to those behaviours is taken into account,” says Chatterton.

Invest in training that works

Company-wide training is also helping to change attitudes and behaviours. “We’ve seen a lot more firms engaging in training around behaviours and the impact that people have at all different levels,” reports Chatterton. Online modules and lectures, she says, are less effective than bespoke training targeted at specific issues unearthed within a firm, using actors and real-life scenarios to embed appropriate responses.

A new culture of openness has also led firms to proactively root out harassment. “Some are encouraging people to speak up, saying: ‘Tell us – we can deal with it, manage it, wipe the slate clean and then set ourselves off on a better footing going forward,’” says Chatterton. “That’s brave because you don’t know what’s going to come out.” If a firm is visibly taking action against senior employees over harassment, she believes, others will be more confident about speaking up.

Other steps being taken by individual firms to root out harassment include a UK partnership that has created the hashtag #ThatsNotCool to encourage staff to flag potentially offensive language and behaviour. Another has adopted reverse mentoring to provide a safe space for senior lawyers to better understand the issues, and the impact they have on younger members of the profession.

The regulators are also getting involved: the Bar Council of England and Wales has created the app Talk to Spot, which is free to barristers and enables them to talk through and record inappropriate behaviour at work. Meanwhile the SRA and Law Society have made it clear that they expect firms to report allegations of sexual harassment early, and that they will intervene where necessary.

Ultimately, however, change has to come from within. “The key thing is leadership and the tone from the top, and somebody senior being seen to be taking a stand against this kind of behaviour,” Chatterton says. “That’s absolutely fundamental.”

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