As Hollywood reels over allegations one of its stars sexually assaulted multiple women, lawyer Caroline Newman says it’s time to speak up about harassment in the profession
When I was a desperate law student looking for a training contract in the late 1990s, I was propositioned by a senior partner. In fact he was the founding partner and essentially the owner of the firm. He was very well known in the legal world.
He made it very clear to me that he would take me on as a paralegal. Then he stroked my arm and said that if I worked hard and did well that he may offer me a training contract. He stared into my eyes and made it absolutely clear that “doing well” included having sex with him. I looked away embarrassed. I felt violated and dirty.
Of course, I did not take him up on his “offer”. I never saw him again until last month when I attended an event at King’s College. I saw him and it brought about that same feeling of disgust as when I met him in the 1990s. I remembered like it was yesterday what he said to me. No doubt he didn’t remember me as I probably was “one of many” he propositioned.
In 2001, the Trainee Solicitors Group did a survey of their members and I recall that sexual harassment was a constant theme among female law students seeking training contracts and trainees wanting to be “kept on” at the end of their training contracts.
Then later on when I was a trainee solicitor I was propositioned many times and sexually harassed on an almost daily basis by two senior lawyers in the firm.
They continuously asked me to go out with them. They asked me to come and work with them. They promised me that I would be alright. They would “take care of me”. They would make sure that I got kept on in the department. They competed for my attention. At first I was confused, but flattered and thought it was humorous so I played along. I had no intention of having sex with either of them.
Two women solicitors in the firm told me they were sleazy and warned me to stay away from them if I valued my reputation in the firm. The secretaries at the firm would gossip about who had slept with these guys. I soon realised what was going on and I heeded the advice of the women solicitors and stayed away from these men. The effect of this is that I did not do a “seat” in a department that I wanted to work in.
As I note the hypocrisy around Harvey Weinstein, at first I was disgusted at him for the way he behaved towards vulnerable women. Then I began to feel irritated at the Hollywood “stars” who are now falling over themselves to condemn him and disassociate themselves from him.
It seems that “everyone” in Hollywood knew about this. If not everyone then it was an open secret in Hollywood. Women warned each other quietly. Women refused to work with him. Some women no doubt missed opportunities because they would not submit to his sexual requests.
Has the environment really changed in Hollywood? Women are saying that ten, 20, 30 years ago when this happened they could not have told anyone or complained. They were at the start of their careers and were probably scared that “they would never work in this town again”. Are we in the legal profession going to remain silent and protect the “guilty” so they can continue to harass others? Or are we going to name and shame them.
Caroline Newman is a solicitor and a consultant.