The Real-World Implications of #MeToo for the Legal Ecosystem: Lawyers Need to Lead in Fight Against Sexual Harassment

Topics: #MeToo, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Legal Executive Events, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


NEW YORK — Lawyers are uniquely poised to tackle issues of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination and should take a leading role in that battle to become a strong proponent of women colleagues, according to a panel held as part of the “#MeToo: Transforming the Legal Ecosystem” series hosted by Thomson Reuters and Her Justice.

After a highly successful first event in April, this second roundtable session — held June 18 in the offices of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison — gave lawyers a space in which to continue their frank, off-the-record conversation about their role in the #MeToo movement. The discussion explored root causes of this systemic problem and identified practical steps lawyers can take to be part of the solution.

The program was developed by Joe Kennedy, Director of Legal Managed Services at Thomson Reuters, and Dave Curran, Global Director of Risk & Compliance with Thomson Reuters, working with the team from Her Justice. Curran facilitated the June 18 conversation and introduced Thought Leaders, Patsy Doerr, the Global Head of Corporate Responsibility and Inclusion at Thomson Reuters, and Amy Barasch, the Executive Director of Her Justice, an organization that provides free legal services to New York City women living in poverty, many of whom are victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Doerr opened the dialog by discussing the tangible impact of diversity and inclusion on today’s business environment. Barasch agreed that questions of representation and power are inseparable from the #MeToo movement — the lawyer’s role can exacerbate or ameliorate the power dynamic. Like the #MeToo movement, Her Justice partners with volunteer lawyers to elevate the voices of their female clients, shifting power to them. Yet as Curran noted, men — particularly those in positions of authority — must also participate in order to advance the movement’s goals.

Though there may be more public attention on the [sexual harassment] today, participants pointed out that real change lags behind.

The senior in-house executives and major law firm partners who attended the eventwere eager to analyze the developments of the last few years regarding sexual harassment. Though there may be more public attention on the matter today, participants pointed out that real change lags behind. Dramatic firings like those of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are the exception, not the rule. Roundtable attendees described how most women — especially women of color or of lower socioeconomic status — still feel unsafe speaking out. Several in the room had personally experienced the negative consequences of reporting harassment. One partner who handles high profile investigations noted, “people don’t trust the system for a reason.”

Lawyers Can Make a Difference

What steps can lawyers and corporations take to repair this broken trust? Employees may view in-house counsel with suspicion, knowing that the lawyers’ first priority is to “protect the company.” However, Curran asked participants to question what such protection really means. In the long term, a corporation that allows or enables harassment puts its own reputation at risk, with the potential for severe financial consequences. It is up to lawyers to show board members and executives that solving harassment issues is in the company’s best interest. This strategy may be easier for outside counsel, who as a neutral party have more credibility, but outside and in-house counsel can work together to ensure that harassment is appropriately handled. Several law firm partners shared their experiences of speaking truth to boards even if their in-house counterpart would or could not.

Roundtable participants also highlighted how a company’s culture can inhibit or facilitate harassment, with culture stemming from those in positions of power. If the “tone at the top” is disrespectful toward women, harassment is more likely to be found throughout the organization. On the other hand, one General Counsel described an executive who travels to each of his company’s offices and personally leads integrity and inclusivity trainings. His commitment to creating a welcoming work environment reverberates throughout his company’s culture.

Another senior in-house executive reminded the group that culture depends on the composition of leadership teams. Increasing the number of women in senior positions has a demonstrably positive impact on how harassment and abuse issues are handled — and, therefore, how often they are reported. Lawyers can help companies create inclusive leadership policies in order to balance gender representation in the workplace. Addressing micro-inequalities will be crucial to effecting change on the macro level.

Roundtable participants also highlighted how a company’s culture can inhibit or facilitate harassment, with culture stemming from those in positions of power.

Ally Coll Steele, President of the Purple Campaign, a coalition to end workplace sexual harassment, shared how public policy reform can complement internal efforts. Essentially the system needs an overhaul so that women and others impacted by improper or illegal acts in the workplace don’t have the cards stacked against them from the outset.

Others at the table lauded education as a tool to instill the right values and mindset: one participant described the need for business and law schools to “teach culture” and for corporations to rigorously take up the fight. “You can’t just run a half-hour training to check a box,” he said. “Companies and firms need to be loud on this issue and make it a fundamental part of their ethos.”

Leveraging Data to Make a Difference

Jennifer Peterson, a Partner with the League of Allies, has been at both #MeToo sessions and introduced the concept that lawyers, just like Human Resources and other leaders in organizations, can leverage data to advance gender equity and eliminate harassment. By gathering turnover statistics and analyzing metrics for complaint-reporting and engagement, companies can identify where and how they need to make a change. This correlates with information Peterson shared which demonstrated that organizations that have more women in positions of power perform demonstrably better than those that don’t.

Several of the law firm partners and in-house executives offered additional examples of leveraging technology to tackle workplace sexual harassment: one attendee’s company monitors internal communications for trigger words, while another described apps that allow employees to report harassment confidentially. These apps can notify women and men if someone else has already reported their harasser, with the option to contact other victim(s) and move forward as a team. As Peterson noted, collecting and using data allows companies to cut out the linear system of harassment-reporting that fails so many women.

As the roundtable drew to a close, attendees reaffirmed the need for a two-pronged approach in tackling sexual harassment. Both a long-term cultural shift and short-term solutions will be necessary to make workplaces safer and more equitable. Participants brainstormed action items they could take immediately, such as devising a range of accountability incentives to motivate those who would not otherwise work to promote a safe workplace culture and to support broader engagement.

Curran reminded the group that they are not alone in the fight against sexual harassment; lawyers can move forward together, pooling strategies and resources. Organizations such as Her Justice, the Purple Campaign, and League of Allies are available to help. When lawyers connect on the issue and share ideas, they can trigger a snowball effect. No company wants to be left behind if everyone else in the market is publicly denouncing and repairing toxic work environments.

Workplace sexual harassment remains a gravely systemic issue and we could only cover a tip of one iceberg in a very engaged conversation that lasted more than two hours. Nonetheless, the second #MeToo discussion shed light on reasons to be optimistic. Many professionals in every sector, both female and male, are committed to positive change. A variety of resources and actionable steps are available to lawyers today. And, as the general counsel from a major public financial institution concluded: “Somewhere along the way, sexual harassment became bad for business. When it’s bad for business, business will change. And when business changes, culture changes, too.”

Thomson Reuters and Her Justice are grateful to Paul, Weiss for hosting the roundtable. The “#MeToo: Transforming the Legal Ecosystem” series will continue in September.