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Survey: Global legal profession “rife” with bullying, sexual harassment

May 24, 2019

The legal profession has a problem, according to the International Bar Association.

The IBA conducted what it calls the largest ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal workplace, interviewing nearly 7,000 people from 135 countries.

Results from the survey revealed a common and unsettling trend that the legal profession is “rife” with bullying and sexual harassment, regardless of whether policies and training have been implemented to address it.

Key findings of the study uncovered that in the workplace, one in three female attorneys have been sexually harassed, and half of women have been bullied. In the United States, the survey found more than 45 percent of respondents said they had been bullied and at least 24 percent said they had been sexually harassed.

Similarly, one in three men have been bullied at work and one in 14 have experienced sexual harassment. Nearly 57 percent of bullying cases went unreported, and 75 percent of sexual harassment cases were kept silent.

“It is deeply shameful that our profession, predicated on the highest ethical standards, is rife with such negative workplace behaviors,” said IBA President Horacio Bernardes Neto, partner of Motta Fernandes Advogados in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“Bar associations, law societies and law firms must lead by example and expose unacceptable behavior. The IBA will be undertaking a global engagement campaign to ensure that eradicating bullying and sexual harassment is prioritized. We must work for positive change,” Bernardes Neto said.  

Survey results note that 65 percent of practitioners who have been bullied in the workplace consider or ultimately leave their job, as did 37 percent of sexually harassed practitioners.

The report further discovered that while policies are present in more than half of legal workplaces, their desired effects are lacking. Although training does have some positive impact, only one in five legal workplaces educate their staff to prevent and properly respond to bullying and sexual harassment.

Survey respondents in workplaces with polices and training are just as likely to be bullied or sexually harassed as those at workplaces without, it concluded.  

“These types of behavior are insidious and must be confronted,” said IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis. “The legal profession has been called upon regularly to advise other industries on bullying and sexual harassment. However, our ability to drive broader change is undermined if our own house is not in order. The IBA will promote cross-sector collaboration to ensure these societal-wide issues are addressed.”

Of respondents, 73 percent of respondents work in a law firm, with in-house lawyers and government lawyers comprising 9 and 5 percent, respectively. Members of the judiciary made up 3 percent. Most respondents were younger than 40, and 67 percent were women.

The IBA offered 10 recommendations for change, including raising awareness, revising and reimplementing policies and standards, and gathering data to improve transparency on the issue, among other things.
A second version of the study will be conducted in 2024 to provide further data on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession and will be compared to these results.

“We should call out bad behavior and support those who suffer as a result of it,” the survey concludes. “It is incumbent on all members of the profession to work together to address these issues, because the findings of this research are damning upon us all.”

 

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