Law Firms

Bullying and sexual harassment ‘are rife in the legal profession,’ global survey finds

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One in three female lawyers have been sexually harassed in a work context, while one in two women have experienced bullying in the workplace, according to a recently released global survey of nearly 7,000 lawyers in 135 countries.

The numbers were somewhat lower for male lawyers. One in 14 men reported sexual harassment in the work context, while one in three have experienced bullying in a legal workplace. The International Bar Association conducted the survey in connection with the consulting firm Acritas. Bloomberg, the Guardian and the American Lawyer have coverage of the findings, available here.

Fifty-seven percent of the bullying incidents and 75% of sexual harassment cases were not reported.

“The results provide empirical confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession,” the report said.

The 359 lawyers who responded to the survey in the United States reported even higher rates of bullying and harassment. Fifty-four percent of female lawyers here and 11% of male lawyers said they have been sexually harassed. Sixty-three percent of the female lawyers and 38% of male lawyers reported that they have been bullied. Most of the respondents here were female and most worked in law firms.

The report included verbatim comments from respondents, including this comment from a U.S. lawyer. “One senior partner would assign certain work for certain clients on the basis of looks (‘[client] likes blondes’). This same partner would routinely force you to sit in his office as he regaled you with stories of the sex acts he had engaged in with various women.”

The report was distributed to IBA members and was publicly available online. People who experienced workplace bullying and harassment could have been more likely to respond, Bloomberg points out. But the results are consistent with other research, the IBA said.

The introduction to the report begins with a Wall Street Journal account of a 1983 event at the Atlanta office of a major law firm. The lawyers wanted to hold a wet T-shirt contest for female summer associates but opted instead for a swimsuit competition because of resistance from colleagues. The winner was offered a job at the firm. “She has the body we’d like to see more of,” one partner had said.

“Thirty-six years after the swimsuit competition generated concern,” the report introduction says, “it appears that only limited progress has been made to eliminate sexual harassment, bullying and other unprofessional behavior from the legal profession.”

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