Us Too? Bullying & Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Efficiency, Law Firms, Lawyer Well-Being, Leadership


NEW YORK — At the International Bar Association’s (IBA’s) Us Too event — conducted in conjunction with the release of the largest-ever survey examining the state of bullying and sexual harassment within the legal profession — panelists were sadly not surprised by the data and discussed how the industry could act to curb this damaging behavior.

The event included panelists Hilarie Bass, founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion and Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association (ABA); Deborah Martin Owens, executive director of Diversity & Inclusion at the New York City Bar Association; Matthew Fernandez Konigsberg, Immediate Past President of the Hispanic National Bar Association-New York Region andan ethics attorney specializing in business ethics and public integrity; and Lisa Hart Shepherd, CEO of UK research firm Acritas. Stephanie Brumsey, producer from Reuters, moderated the discussion.

You can visit previous highlights from the report here.

Kieran Pender, of IBA’s Legal Policy & Research Unit, kicked off the event with the presentation of key facts from the report. Half of women reported bullying in the workplace, as did one-third of men, according to the report. Bullying, for the purposes of the survey, was defined as “aggressive behavior or incivility by supervisors, colleagues, or third parties, which has a negative impact on working conditions or causes harm to the physical or mental health of the target.” Common experiences cited by both men and women included ridicule and use of demeaning language.

Regarding sexual harassment, one-third of women and one-in-14 men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The most common experiences included sexual or sexist comments and inappropriate physical contact. Sexual harassment for the report was defined as “unwanted sex-related behavior which has the purpose or effect of being intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive.”

The Data Is Not Surprising

To kick off the panel, Brumsey asked the panelists to share their initial reactions. All of the panelists stated that they were not surprised by the data. Konigsberg said that he had experienced bullying himself in past jobs he has had as a lawyer, adding that unfortunately in the legal profession, most attorneys are loathe to “report” on other attorneys.

Indeed, some of the more disturbing facts from the report concern reporting, and the panelists kept coming back to the lack of reporting on incidents as a critical issue. According to the survey, 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases are never reported; and the top reasons cited in the survey were the status of the perpetrator, fear of repercussions, and the incident being endemic to the workplace.

All of the panelists stated that they were not surprised by the data…  [and one added], unfortunately in the legal profession, most attorneys are loathe to “report” on other attorneys.

Owens demonstrated the difficulty of reporting, noting that in the past when people had come to her for guidance on how to respond when bullying or sexual harassment occurred, she advised them to move to another job and not report the incident because of the threat of retaliation and the fact that the victim, in many cases, would experiences hardship in finding a job after a formal complaint at an employer is made.

But what would it take to increase the numbers of reported incidents? Brumsey asked. The panelists strongly suggested that the organization’s leadership needs to be very clear on the penalties and consequences if the investigation of the incident finds that the accused perpetrator is found to have committed bullying or harassment. There is a “need to drive accountability that certain behaviors are unacceptable,” said Bass.

Moreover, the onus should not be just on the victims to report, but also on the observers, several panelists agreed. Also, another thing that would mitigate potential incidents is male partners calling out each other if a colleague makes an inappropriate comment about a woman’s appearance.

Other panelists cited that organizations need to make consistent training a part of their culture, especially to clarify what bullying and sexual harassment look like. “If you want people to get something out of it, real-life examples of situations that have happened to people must be the center of the training, so that people can learn what appropriate conduct is,” said panelist Konigsberg.

One Person’s Bullying…

One of the challenges with addressing bullying in the workplace is that, unlike sexual harassment, the line between reasonable management and bullying is not precise. In other words, what is bullying to one person is just strong supervision to another. “What do you do if an adversary grabs you by the shoulder and squeezes it really tight?” asked Konigsberg. “Or shakes your hand and squeezes it really hard to intimidate you?” On the surface, these situations look to be friendly gestures, he said, but they may be bullying behavior.

Acritas’ Shepherd also said that the more subtle incidents of bullying are pervasive because they are normalized as acceptable behaviors within the culture of many firms. Indeed, those of the older generation view these subtleties as a way of “earning your stripes.” Another key problem in reporting is the fact that managing partners do not believe that it happens at their firms, she said.

To mitigate the issues, ABA defined discrimination and harassment in its code of conduct, and it has been adopted by half of the states. This was an important foundation to report unacceptable behaviors as an ethics violation.

Konigsberg spotlighted the importance of the ABA’s move by examining New York State’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, which has not adopted the ABA rule, as an example. New York’s Rule 8.4(g) outlaws “unlawful discrimination” and does not specifically mention “harassment or bullying”. Thus, the alleged conduct must meet the definition of “discrimination” and be “illegal” as per criminal or civil law for someone to bring a valid ethics complaint against an attorney under Rule 8.4(g). Of course, New York’s rules provide other strong bases to bring a valid ethics complaint against an attorney’s for alleged bad acts.

Finally, Brumsey asked the panelists to pick one of the top recommendations from the Us Too report that they think is critical to decreasing these incidents of bullying and sexual harassment. Tone at the top, taking ownership and training to clarify what bullying and sexual harassment is were all mentioned.

“Tone at the top is critical for accountability,” said Bass. “Without it, the rest of it is window dressing.”