Attorneys dined on quiche Lorraine and enjoyed the stunning view of Miami from the 44th story window of the Greenberg Traurig law firm’s conference room. At the same time, they heard a grim indictment of their profession.
“The legal profession has a problem,” Kieran Pender told the room of elite Miami lawyers. Pender, a representative of the International Bar Association, walked them through the sober results of the first ever global study of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession.
The survey of almost 7,000 lawyers — titled “Us Too?” — found that one in three female lawyers worldwide had been sexually harassed by colleagues. The rates of harassment in the United States were significantly worse: over half of U.S. female lawyers surveyed reported being sexually harassed in the workplace. A distressingly high number of female U.S. lawyers — 63% — also reported being bullied at work.
“We have a serious challenge that we need to address,” explained Pender. He noted that the high rates of sexual harassment and bullying were causing young lawyers to leave the profession at high rates. He also wondered aloud if the bullying and sexual harassment didn’t contribute to the disproportionate number of males in legal leadership positions.
“It’s important to about issues of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal industry,” said Yosbei Ibarra, a top lawyer at Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office. “These issues … (are) a critical reason why people leave the profession.”
“Think of the many star lawyers we are missing as a profession,” Pender, an Australian labor lawyer told the crowd.
Nationally, the rates of sexual harassment reported in the study far outstrip those found in the average American workplace. A 2018 U.S. survey conducted by Edison research with slightly more than 1,000 respondents found that just under 30% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment.
The study, which was released this May, found that young female lawyers between the ages of 25-29 were the most likely to have experienced harassment in the past year, and that such incidents most commonly occurred inside the workplace or at work related events. But only about a quarter of harassment incidents were reported to human resources or management, the study noted.
Imposing consequences on those committing the harassment was sometimes a challenge for law firms, Pender explained. Lawyers are often promoted on the basis of how much they bill clients, meaning that disciplining or firing a top producing lawyer who sexually harasses a colleague or is a chronic workplace bully could result in significant reductions of income for the firm.
“We’ve all heard stories of people throwing phones at associates or screaming at a client,” Pender noted.
Law firms and work places with clear policies and guidelines around bullying did see fewer incidences of bullying, but the study found no such correlation between clear workplace guidelines and policies and lower levels of sexual harassment in the United States.
The study, which us undertaken alongside the consulting firm Acritas, makes several recommendations for changing the culture of the legal profession, among them raising awareness of the issue, introducing regular and customized training, and more actively regulating bullying.
“This is an evidence based profession,” claimed Pender, “and this is the evidence.”