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How junior lawyers are pressured to keep quiet about harassment

The Law Society has professed shock after discovering the extent of harassment and discrimination in legal offices. But if you look at the barriers to reporting abuse, it’s little wonder juniors refuse to come forward, writes Madeleine Holden.

For the second time this year, the legal profession has been rocked by reports that it’s a hotbed of sexual harassment and a toxic environment in which to work. Last Wednesday the Law Society released the results of a Colmar Brunton survey of 3,516 lawyers to assess the workplace environment for legal practice. The study revealed levels of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination so prevalent that Law Society President Kathryn Beck was moved to write a letter to members declaring “a serious and systemic cultural problem in [the] profession”. Nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life, and more than half of the lawyers surveyed have been bullied. Speaking to the media, Beck expressed shock on behalf of the organisation she heads: “The stories kept coming. How big was this problem? We didn’t know. Why didn’t we know about it? We didn’t know that either.”

For many people who experience bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in legal workplaces – especially women, young people and Māori, Pacific and Asian lawyers – these results are far from surprising. And, as victims are well aware, one of the key reasons that the Law Society has been caught unaware is that legal workplaces erect barriers to the safe reporting of these matters, especially at a managerial and HR level, meaning that the behaviour festers in darkness.

NZ Law Society President Kathryn Beck

Hannah, 29, a lawyer who previously worked at controversial law firm Russell McVeagh, spoke to The Spinoff about how difficult it was for her to challenge the culture at the firm. (Hannah’s name has been changed upon request, for reasons this article will soon discuss.) She said that if junior lawyers raised problems with the culture of the firm or behavior of senior lawyers, the official response was to train the complainant to be less sensitive, rather than challenge the senior lawyer about their behaviour. “The common practice if you did go to HR was for them to send you on ‘Resilience Training’,” she explained. “This happened to a number of the girls, so they could learn how better to cope with their seniors.”

(Update: Russell McVeagh have responded to the claims made by ‘Hannah’; we have added their comments at the end of this story)

Hannah witnessed sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and physical and emotional bullying during her time at the firm. “My particular experience was after a period where we had quite an imbalance in the team, with some very strong ‘lads’ that dominated the culture,” she said. “There was a lot of pretty gross chat and generally quite offensive behaviour, both in the office and then over drinks later, which obviously escalates it all. One of the graduate lawyers I had been mentoring told me they were really struggling with the culture, and the attitudes of a particular senior in the team. At this point, the grad had been shoved into a wall by one of the seniors and told to ‘fuck off’ when he had challenged the senior for swearing abuse at someone else in the team.”

Despite the seriousness of the bullying and inappropriateness of the behaviour, Hannah told me she was discouraged by a senior associate from going to HR. “When I talked to her, she said she was hyper-aware of it and it also bothered her, but that I shouldn’t go to HR as they would just go straight to the partners and it would damage my reputation,” she said. “Her point was that nothing is confidential, particularly with HR.” Hannah’s experience led her to believe that, even if she risked her reputation by making a formal complaint, the exercise would be fruitless. “I don’t think I did [report this behaviour to HR], but I think a couple of juniors did, and I know our secretary had so many issues with one of the seniors, but no one ever did anything.”

The fear of damaging one’s reputation is an enormous disincentive to reporting harassment, bullying and discrimination in legal workplaces, as is the belief that nothing will be done even if that risk is taken. The Colmar Brunton survey identified that while misconduct of this nature is rampant throughout the industry, reporting it is relatively uncommon. For both sexual harassment and bullying, the survey found that less than one in eight of those targetted reported the harassment or made a complaint. Fear of the consequences, including impact on career prospects, was one of the most commonly cited reasons for failing to report inappropriate behaviour in the workplace – 65% of those who had personally experienced sexual harassment cited it as a barrier to reporting the behaviour – and distrust in the process or reporting outcome was cited as a reason by 57% of respondents.

As Hannah’s experience shows, this fear is quite rational. HR departments routinely respond to grievances by cautioning complainants to “keep their heads down”, or by shifting complainants, rather than perpetrators, out of their desired team. Some do nothing at all. Many smaller firms have no HR departments to speak of, meaning that complainants must raise the issue with a partner, who may be the perpetrator or have a closer relationship with the perpetrator than the complainant. For 10% of lawyers surveyed who had experienced sexual harassment, the reason cited for not reporting it was “The person I would normally report the issue to is the perpetrator”. For many lawyers, these outcomes are not worth the reputational risk. The legal industry in New Zealand is small, word travels fast, and powerless legal employees that “rock the boat” by making formal complaints or speaking to the press risk being permanently tainted as a “troublemaker” or “prude”.

Nothing confirms this fear of reputational harm quite like reporting on a story about misconduct in the legal industry: routinely, victims of harassment, bullying and discrimination are too afraid to share their accounts on record. Almost all request that their names are changed, and some decline to share their stories even under a different name, because of a fear that they’ll be identified from the details of the story alone – the more cartoonishly offensive the behaviour, the higher the risk that they’ll be recognised as the complainant. “Even if you give me a fake name, everyone will know it’s me from the story,” one source told The Spinoff, declining to share her grotesque experience of sexual harassment on the record. Almost without fail, sources use the same word to describe the level of harassment in the industry (“rife”), but few are willing to risk being identified as someone who had spoken out against their manager, partner or firm. Without stories, there can be no media coverage – another reason these anonymous results have come as a shock to the Law Society.

Discouraged from both internal and external reporting of the misconduct, many victims of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination in legal workplaces suffer in silence. The Colmar Brunton survey has helped to confirm the prevalence of the problem, but the details of victims’ stories will not see the light of day until HR departments, managers and partners treat complaints with the seriousness they deserve, and lawyers are no longer stifled by fear of speaking out. Tackling the culture of abuse in the legal industry requires the culture of silence to be dismantled first.

Russell McVeagh responds:

We aren’t aware of the incident you refer to and we would be extremely concerned if any of our staff were treated in such a way by another member of our staff.

As you will know, Dame Margaret Bazley is conducting an independent review into our culture with respect to sexual harassment and bullying. If your source hasn’t already done so we would urge her to speak to Dame Margaret before she completes her review by calling 0800 779 779 or emailing ereview@rmcvexternal.com. Dame Margaret and her team treat all conversations with the utmost confidence.


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