‘He threw a phone at my head’: International survey reveals bullying rife in the legal profession

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By Polly Botsford on

Largest ever study finds one in three females sexually harassed in workplace

A global survey of nearly 7,000 respondents in the legal profession has uncovered a shocking degree of bullying and sexual harassment affecting men and women.

One in two female respondents and one in three male respondents reported bullying, whilst one in three females and one in fourteen males reported sexual harassment in a work context. Cases are predominantly from law firms though also in-house, in barristers’ chambers, judiciary and government.

Alongside the stats, the report reveals testimonies from individual people. One female in an unnamed law firm in the UK said:

“I was advised by the (female) practice manager that if I showed a sexual interest in my principal, he would be nicer to me. This was after he had thrown a phone at my head.”

Another male respondent from a barristers’ chambers in the UK told researchers:

“I often received comments from my supervisor that she wanted to ‘f*ck me’. Any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it.”

The report, by the International Bar Association (IBA), an organisation of lawyers, bar associations and law societies across the globe, in conjunction with market research company, Acritas, notes that, despite #MeToo, a “considerable proportion” of those cases appear to have happened in the last 12 months.

With respondents from 135 countries, 715 legal professionals responded to the survey in the UK. Here, there are slightly higher levels of reports of bullying than the international average: 62% of females and 41% of males compared to global figures of 55% and 30% respectively. Sexual harassment cases impacted 38% of female respondents and 6% of male ones.

It is worth noting, however, that the survey does highlight what is known as the ‘perception paradox’: that in countries where sexual harassment and bullying are topical issues, there is greater reporting giving a perception that a problem is disproportionately more prevalent in one country over another. (The IBA hypothesises that in the future there may be an increase in reporting in the short term that could “indicate increased subjective understanding among targets and a greater willingness to report rather than an objective increase in the frequency of such misconduct.”)

The report observes that these problems globally may be structural: “It is not surprising that bullying and sexual harassment are widespread in the profession.” Citing academic research, the report says:

“Researchers have identified characteristics that increase the likelihood of negative workplace behaviours — these include “where leadership is male-dominated… where the power structure is hierarchical, where lower-level employees are largely dependent on superiors for advancement, and where power is highly concentrated in a single person.”

The IBA has recommended a range of actions to tackle the problem including awareness, training, and greater transparency.

Introducing the report, its president, Horacio Bernardes Neto, said: “If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character.” He added: “I implore the legal profession to head the recommendations.”

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