Bullying and harassment in the legal sector
In early 2022, barrister Joanna Torode sought to sue her international law firm employer Ropes and Gray for £200,000, citing an “intolerable” workload that ended her lucrative career. And later that year, a trainee solicitor was dismissed and fined £2,000 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for sexually harassing colleagues during a work Christmas party. Those are just two examples of bullying and harassment in the legal sector whereby law firms and employees are regularly facing the consequences and financial risks of failing to deal with problematic behaviour or for breaching policies.
Furthermore, our research has shown that nearly 2 in 5 lawyers (38%) have experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment at work and more than half (55%) have previously left a job due to bad culture. So what can law firms do to reduce those numbers and the consequences that come from not tackling those problems head on? This blog post will unearth what lawyers have talked to us about in regards to their workplace culture and how important they feel diversity and inclusion initiatives and company reputation is to them when it comes to finding new jobs so you as an employer can encourage them to stay.
What causes bullying and harassment in the legal sector?
A survey by Legatics shows that a staggering 92% of lawyers have experienced stress or burnout because of their job and more than a 25% experience it daily. It also found that less than 25% feel supported by their employer when they are stressed or burnout. While it is not concrete that these reasons lead to or are consequences of bullying and harassment, they certainly do share overlaps. We have previously talked about how the stress of one’s job can lead people to take it out on others through incivilities, and in this blog we reveal more about the effects of bullying and harassment in law firms on employees’ mental health and wellbeing.
Systemic racism and sexism are also often referenced when it comes to discrimination in the legal sector, with more people of colour and women experiencing racism and sexism as well as sexual harassment than White men in the profession. These, especially misogyny, sexism, gender or sex discrimination and sexual harassment can be fuelled by “lad culture” that some commentators and lawyers have experienced or witnessed.
Diversity and Inclusion in the legal sector
According to research from the SRA, 52% of lawyers are female, 17% are from ethnic minority backgrounds and 5% of lawyers have disclosed a disability. However, when we look at the gender and ethnicity makeup higher up in law firms, White men dominate (35% of women and 16% of ethnic minorities are partners).
Other data from the SRA’s research does in fact look quite positive and diverse in certain areas. But our own research asking lawyers for their thoughts on how diverse and inclusive their workplace is revealed:
- 38% said their sector doesn’t feel very diverse
- 46% feel diversity should be more of a priority in the workplace
- 52% feel their workplace could do more when it comes to diversity
- 33% said their employers should recruit more people from ethnic minority backgrounds
This perhaps points to progress that has been made in some law firms and in more targeted areas of them (such as hiring more diverse talent at the bottom but the top remaining majority White male), but an inclusive culture is not fostered. Maybe training on diversity and inclusion (including sessions on micro-aggressions) is not given or delivered regularly enough or thoroughly, or policies and procedures are not revised, pointed to and enforced properly.
The effects of bullying and harassment in the legal sector
From the lawyers who responded to our survey, we found a little over half (52%) of them said their mental health had been impacted by a problematic workplace culture, and 50% said bad workplace culture had affected their productivity. These statistics were higher than the average of 42% and 41%.
In addition, 17% have called in sick due to problematic behaviour they’ve witnessed or experienced and 21% have taken time off due to an incident that happened at work. These were lower than the average of 27% and 29% respectively, which perhaps worryingly shows the pressure those in the legal sector feel to continue working – whether or not with less effort and lower productivity – despite what has happened. 38% also said they have been less engaged with their job due to the company having a bad culture, higher than the average of 34%.
This shows that sadly lawyers are feeling unsupported and unheard at work; only 30% have reported bullying and harassment before, 36% say they feel silenced on issues that matter to them at work and 31% said an incident has led them to not trust their employer. But when the Equality Act 2010 states that employers are responsible for preventing discrimination and harassment and they’re liable for any harassment suffered by their employees, are steps really being taken by some law firms to be in line with the law and stop it from happening when we look at these statistics?
The reputational risk law firms face as well as financial risks from lawsuits and fines from the SRA is also something they should be mindful of. If so many lawyers are leaving your company because of bad culture, replacing them may be harder than you would think. An extremely high 73% of employees in the legal sector wouldn’t accept a job with a company known for having a bad culture and nearly half (49%) would leave a bad Glassdoor review or warn people about applying for a job with a company because of it. As more current and former employees from all industries turn to social media rather than their line manager, ED&I team or HR department to complain about things that happen, employers need to make sure they are addressing and rectifying the problem so poor behaviour doesn’t take place let alone get out into the public sphere.
Why employees in the legal sector are not reporting bullying and harassment
As we said, only 30% of lawyers have reported bullying and harassment at work before. However, the SRA confirmed that for the year 2020/2021 they received 10,400 reports of concern covering a wide range of different issues. This is perhaps reflective of the fact people are less comfortable talking to their employers and more confident going straight to the SRA instead, who then struggle to get through all the claims made. Hopefully, with the release of new guidance on workplace environment, this will start to shift.
Another reason could be, as we have mentioned, the hierarchical structure of law firms, where the top is not very diverse and organisational culture has dictated that that is “how things are” and therefore people don’t speak up for fear of repercussions such as dismissal. We even found that 8% of legal sector employees would leave an organisation WITHOUT another job lined up. If you don’t want them to go to another law firm that will treat them better, it’s time to take bullying and harassment seriously.
Others may be unsure of what to report and where to, keeping feelings bottled up or quiet about incidents that they may not deem serious enough to report to anyone. See our advice below on how that can be addressed.
How to prevent bullying and harassment in the legal sector
Dealing with and preventing bullying and harassment in the legal sector can be a mountainous task, especially considering the figures we have already provided you with. But the solutions do not have to be that hard if you truly want to make changes and improve your workplace’s culture. Here are just three of many pieces of advice we can give you:
1. Review your policies to be line with the law and SRA
As law firms, your policies should be as robust and thorough as they come. But how supportive and protective are they of your employees as well as the business? Are expectations from everyone, no matter their role or level within the organisation, and the consequences of breaching those policies clear and followed through on? Too often, they are not and punishments are not severe enough to prevent people from finding ways round or investigations are not fair or thorough enough.
2. Make your training matter
It can be easy to hold a diversity and inclusion training session but getting people to attend it, care about it, engage with it and learn from it is a completely different kettle of fish. Attendees need to know why they should be going along and participating, why it’s important and why their voices and actions play a part in making your workplace diverse, inclusive and a positive environment for everyone. Workshops that apply empathy and encourage discussions with other colleagues can be great ways to help everybody get a better understanding of issues.
They should also be consistent and targeted since the ED&I spectrum is so vast and diverse within itself, plus monitored alongside other tracked data to see if there are improvements in areas such as an increase in diverse new team members, better results on your wellbeing and staff culture survey, and less reports of discrimination.
3. Provide an anonymous reporting route
65% of legal sector employees we asked said they would be much more likely to report problematic behaviour at work if they had an anonymous platform to do so. Having one will allow you to track trends and take targeted action as mentioned above with training, policies, campaigns or other organisational changes and help remove barriers to reporting that we have already discussed. This will help create a truer picture of what’s happening for your organisation as well as hopefully a more inclusive and supportive workplace for everyone.
And it must be noted that our reporting system can be used for all levels of “misconduct”, from micro-aggressions through to whistleblowing, but the former should absolutely not be overlooked when it comes to preventing and dealing with bullying, discrimination and harassment. Our Success Team will help those who will be responsible for dealing with reports to be trained and ready to do so for any scenarios they may come across, be they anonymous or named, making the system easy to use for both parties and a powerful tool for your People and overall business functions.
We recently signed on Macfarlanes law firm as a partner, who have been open to change and willing to provide their employees with our system to prevent issues and be a leader within an industry where they know change is needed. If you want to know more about how they have overcome barriers and plan to use Report + Support to tackle bullying and harassment in a law firm, you can contact our friendly team who will be happy to talk you through it.