Recent IBA Survey Data on Bullying and Sexual Harassment is Unsettling

Topics: #MeToo, Gender Equity, Law Firms, Leadership, Leadership & Retention, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


Half of women lawyers and one-third of male lawyers have experienced bullying in the workplace, according to the recent survey of almost 7,000 respondents across 135 countries conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA).

What is more shocking are the numbers of those who have experienced sexual harassment in the legal profession — one-third of women and 1- in-14 men. And even more depressing are the statistics around how many incidents are never reported — 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases are never reported, according to the survey. The top reasons cited in the survey for the lack of reporting are the status of the perpetrator, fear of repercussions, and the incident being endemic to the workplace.

With this survey, the IBA demonstrated that it is committed to taking action with a campaign to raise awareness of the problem in 20 cities across the world. The IBA launched the report in London recently, and it was a standing-room-only event.

Similarly, the IBA will be bringing a live event to New York City on June 3 at Thomson Reuters headquarters in Times Square.

At the NYC event, Horacio Bernardes Neto, president of the National Bar Association and partner at Motta Fernandes Advogados will host the event, and Kieran Pender, legal advisor for Legal Policy & Research at the IBA will present findings from the report. A panel will follow, which will discuss how to address the issue by exploring a number of different options, such as the role of data to promote transparency, the best policies and standards for workplaces, and how to increase dialogue and share best practices.

Panelists include Hilarie Bass, founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion and Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association; Deborah Martin Owens, executive director of Diversity & Inclusion at the New York City Bar Association; and Matthew Fernandez Konigsberg, Immediate Past President of the Hispanic National Bar Association-New York Region and Special Counsel for Ethics, Risk & Compliance at the NYS Department of State. Stephanie Brumsey, producer from Reuters will moderate the discussion.

Penalties, Policies & Training Needed

According to the survey, the most common form of bullying were ridicule and demeaning language, overbearing supervision that undermines work output, and misuse of power or position. The most common situations of sexual harassment cited by the survey respondents were sexist comments, being looked at in an inappropriate manner, and inappropriate physical contact.

Worse yet, the penalties for those responsible for the bullying or harassment seemed to be very minimal, if they were levied at all. Alleged perpetrators experienced no penalties in three-quarters of the cases, and that pervasiveness has adversely impacted talent, diminished the victim’s mental and physical health, and resulted in a trove of people leaving the profession. To illustrate the impact on a single individual — one female in a law firm commented that her “self-esteem had dropped dramatically” and made her think “occasionally of harming myself.”

In addition, only 53% of respondents’ workplaces had policies in place and event fewer — 22% — offered training to combat this behavior, according to the survey.

Shifting the Culture

Clearly, action is required on a number of fronts. Legal employers must articulate clear standards of behavior through codes of conduct, policies, and training with regular reviews. In addition, to change the pervasiveness of the issue, workplaces must shift their culture to create trust with the employees in the lower levels in order to increase reporting of harassment and abuse.

Also, the role of ethics is important too, since lawyers already have a code of ethics they adhere to. From a victim’s perspective, the ethics are clear cut. “There should be absolutely no place in this profession, nor any other, for bullies or sexual harassers,” the survey report stated. “At the very least, people deserve dignity and a safe, supportive environment in return for their work.”

Walied Soliman, the global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright, advocated for “zero tolerance for this type of behavior and to call out even close friends or the biggest rainmaker who behaves this way” In this LinkedIn post Soliman said: “I am embarrassed to have an article like this written about my profession and I, for one, make a commitment to be much more watchful and careful — not only for my firm, but for the respect we want our profession to have.”

Click here to register for the Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession seminar on June 3 in New York City.