Lawyers, the people who regularly represent and report cases of sexual harassment, have revealed it is a big problem within their own profession.
- Female lawyers say sexual harassment is rife in the industry, but many are afraid to report their senior male colleagues
- One former lawyer goes so far as to say equity partners are “untouchable”
- Experts say the culture within the legal profession is such that the victim is seen as being “weak”
This comes after the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report found sexual harassment is increasing in workplaces — although it did not drill down into the legal sector.
A former corporate lawyer, who did not want to be named, said she saw many of her colleagues battle jaw-dropping cases of sexual harassment, such as unwanted physical and sexual advances.
“I’ve definitely seen outcomes where people felt HR were not sympathetic, and afterwards they felt like it wasn’t handled well,” the lawyer said.
“They probably wished they’d never raised anything at all.”
The lawyer said she had also been the target of harassment previously in her career.
She recalled once being forced by her boss to arrange a romantic date with a visiting client just to keep him on side.
“I actually felt kind of unwell, physically, doing it. Honestly, I felt kind of pimped by my boss because I knew he was desperate for work from this client,” she said.
“I do find it quite paradoxical that as solicitors, as lawyers, our jobs are to stand up and advocate vigorously for people sometimes, but we don’t stand up for ourselves or colleagues.
“I think there is an aspect within law, where there is a very strong conformist push. There is a perception that you don’t want to rock the boat, I think it’s a very conservative field still.
“It feels like equity partners are untouchable … you really wouldn’t want to come up against an equity partner.
“I think the whole #MeToo movement is yet to hit the legal profession.”
She said this was why lawyers were often too scared to come forward.
The ABC has spoken to other lawyers who have also reported gender discrimination, unwanted sexual advances, open bias against pregnant women and lewd sexualised language.
But they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, be interviewed.
Junior lawyers ‘reluctant’ to voice concerns
Michael Byrnes, a partner at Swaab Attorneys and specialist in workplace relations, said traditionally there had been a real tendency to protect those in powerful positions.
“In particular senior partners, who bring in enormous revenues or have a strong client base, who are important to the firm [are protected],” said Mr Byrnes, who has come across cases of sexual harassment in the legal profession.
“There can be a power imbalance that arises where young lawyers, junior lawyers, feel reluctant to raise complaints or issues about treatment they’ve been subject to, including sexual harassment.
“Without doubt there are still firms that sweep it under the carpet … and protect those who are in senior positions who might be engaging in misconduct of that kind.”
But Mr Byrnes believes that there has been a paradigm shift in the legal profession as a result of the recent #MeToo movement.
“What the Weinstein example shows is that no matter how powerful you are, how much revenue you bring in, or how important you are, you are not beyond reproach,” he said.
“I think that’s something that law firms have really taken on board. I think it has emboldened those who might want to raise allegations of sexual harassment or other forms of misconduct.
“It means that firms are more likely to hold people to account … and in some instances might even look to do it publicly, to turn a negative into a positive, and do it as a way of affirming the values of the firm.”
‘It’s basically a culture of victim blaming’
Leah Marrone, president of the Women Lawyers’ Association of South Australia, said she had a lot of women come to her with stories of sexual harassment.
In one case, she said, a senior partner invited strippers to work drinks and even had sex with one of them on the table in front of his employees.
Ms Marrone also mentioned other cases where graduate lawyers were told they had to sleep with a boss to secure a clerkship.
But she also believed that sexual harassment was under-reported in the legal sector.
“Lawyers in particular are really risk adverse. They don’t like coming forward because they are worried about their own reputation,” Ms Marrone said.
“Senior people, including women around them, have been discouraging of people coming forward.
“It’s basically a culture of victim blaming. A culture of looking at the victim as the weak person and not wanting to be seen as weak.”
Ms Marrone said the problem started with the male domination at the top level of the profession.
“There’s still a lot of gender discrimination, there’s still a lot of cultural issues in relation to sex discrimination throughout the profession,” she said.
“Particularly when you look at the pay gap, it’s one of the biggest pay gaps, particularly for women at the bar.
“We’ve got this systematic gender discrimination throughout the profession, and that feeds into that fear of reporting because the culture is one of discrimination.”
But Ms Marrone said the Law Council of Australia was working on some great initiatives around dealing with the gender pay gap and a charter on diversity and equality.
In 2013, the council’s National Attrition and Re-Engagement Survey found almost one in four female lawyers experienced sexual harassment.
It has been working with the International Bar Association on a global survey of the legal profession to uncover the extent of sexual harassment.
“We take it very, very seriously indeed. We are by no means in no state of denial. We recognise that we have a problem and there are many of us determined to stamp it out,” said Morry Bailes, the president of the council.