Bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession - can we change the culture?

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Carlos A Bello
BGBG, Mexico City


This session briefly looked at the IBA’s Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession report, which shows that there is much work to do on this topic. The lack of effective means to report harassment, lack of proper training to lawyers and the disadvantage position of victims make this a real problem and one that is difficult to fight against. A culture change has to happen and it is the legal sector who should serve as the role model.

Kieran Pender, of the IBA’s Legal Policy and Research Unit, gave a brief explanation on the IBA’s Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession report, the largest-ever global survey on this matter. The report was released in May 2019 and the findings were really troubling. There are recommendations in the report, one of which is the need for better training.

Niru Palanivel, from the College of Law in Sydney, presented an online training module that is designed to ‘guide individuals and workplaces towards making positive changes within the legal profession and to reduce the prevalence of inappropriate behaviour’. This module emphasises the continuity of training and provides important resources to the participants. E-learning is not going to fix the inappropriate behaviour but it will help as one of the many steps that individuals and workplaces can take to have a safer and healthier legal profession.

James Oury, Chief Executive Officer of Osiris Labs, talked about engagement in the workplace by connecting people. He explained four ‘arrows’ to develop engagement using a soft skills simulator that incorporates virtual reality:

  1. Empathy, where the idea is to have an immersive experience to put you in the shoes of the individual;
  2. The story, where one can see it from different perspectives;
  3. Curiosity, which will allow the individual to explore; and
  4. Impartiality and feedback, where one may have the ability to talk to a virtual human and produce data.

Clare Murray, Founder and Managing Partner of CM Murrary, made it clear that not the entire profession is conflicted and that there is good work being done by the IBA, and good practices. She believes the legal profession has very hierarchical structures with lawyers that are very dependent on their superiors, who are powerful partners. In the legal profession people earn a lot of money and are in very privileged positions in society. This creates a sense of impunity. In addition, senior management tends to take a light approach to the bullying and sexual harassment issue because they are allowed to continue with their success. This leads to the creation of norms that are not necessarily proper to deal with the issue. Alcohol is also a factor that contributes to these wrongful situations. Finally, the lack of human resources in law firms is a problem to handle bullying and sexual harassment issues when they arise.

Pender talked about the overall reliability of the findings of the Us Too? report. He explained that there is margin of error but the data clearly shows that there is work to do. Experiences are included in the report and every single story that was shared and the incidents should have not happened. There is no doubt of the authenticity of the report.

Ifeoma Esom, partner at TRLPLAW in Lagos, gave her perspective of the situation in Africa. Esom confirms that sexual harassment and bullying exist in Nigeria, and although the lack of data does not show the number of cases, these issues exist in law firms, government, companies etc. She also stressed that victims do not report bullying or harassment because they are afraid of the offenders, who usually have a high status, and because organisations usually do not take action where there are reports. She emphasised that it may be easier to leave the organisation than to live with the possible repercussions, or to continue working with the offender knowing that nothing will be done. Some options to improve the work environment would be to have the Nigerian Bar Association come up with a policy – organisations should also be obliged to have appropriate policies or have a public authority where issues can be reported in case the organisation does not do anything. The victims need to have protection, and there should be a whistleblower policy where anyone can report, who are then also protected.

David Glasgow, from the NYU School of Law, insisted that the culture of hierarchy makes it difficult for people to feel that they have a voice, which affects the possibility for people to raise concerns. That is why the NYU School of Law’s research centre is doing external training. They look to make organisations want to create proper conditions in which people feel they can collaborate in an open culture with equal access and where people feel respected. The idea is to build a culture that is genuinely diverse and inclusive. They’ve worked with clients over an extended period and have been able to implement training programs throughout the entire firm they’ve been working with. A customised content and training program for a specific law firm brings better results.

There are many resources for law firms to use to create better environments and the Us Too? report is certainly an important one. In any case, all panellists agreed that training is one of the most effective tools to create better environments and fight against bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession.


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