We’d like to think that lawyers and law firms always do the right thing. The unfortunate truth is that lawyers are capable of bad behavior just like anyone else—and that includes sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a persistent problem at law firms, which is just now coming to the surface in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Firms are especially prone to this type of abuse because of the built-in power dynamics between partners, associates, and assistants. The legal industry also has a long history of being a boys’ club, with women lawyers only entering the field relatively recently. Many firms still have few or no women in decision-making roles.
These circumstances have created the perfect environment for sexual harassment. A 2018 survey published by Acritas, a legal research company, found that one in three female lawyers had been sexually harassed at their firms. A survey published the same year by the ABA Journal found even higher numbers, with 68% of women reporting that they had experienced harassment. Out of these women, only 30% reported it to their firms. And out of all the female respondents, 47% of them said they believe their firms allow sexual harassment to happen.
However, despite this bleak outlook, firms that tolerate sexual harassment cannot continue forever with impunity. Biglaw firm Baker McKenzie found that out the hard way when it came under fire for fumbling its response to a prominent partner accused of assaulting an associate. The partner, Gary Senior, was sanctioned but allowed to keep his job, and the firm reached a confidential settlement with the victim. It wasn’t until Baker McKenzie started to get media attention for the incident that the partner exited the firm.
Public blowback isn’t the only consequence of sexual harassment. Firms that tolerate harassment see higher turnover rates and lower productivity. Many women lawyers say they consider sexual harassment allegations when choosing a firm, which means these firms are missing out on top female law school graduates.
Recognizing Sexual Harassment at Law Firms
Interestingly, although sexual harassment can happen at all types of firms, it’s most prevalent in litigation firms and departments. The most commonly recognized scenario is when a female associate is harassed by a male partner, but that’s not always the case. Men can also be victims, and harassment can happen between people of equal standing. If one person is making another person uncomfortable with sexual or gendered comments or physical touching, it’s sexual harassment, no matter who it’s happening to.
The more visible type of sexual harassment is a hostile work environment. This can look like the harasser:
- Touching people inappropriately, like rubbing shoulders or brushing up behind them
- Telling sexual jokes or stories
- Asking people about their sex lives
- Staring at coworkers or looking at them in a sexual way
- Making jokes or negative comments about a certain gender or sexual identity
- Sending sexual notes, photos, emails, or videos
- Asking people out on dates persistently
- Buying people inappropriate gifts, like lingerie
Quid pro quo—when a higher-up offers a benefit to an associate in return for sexual favors—can be more difficult to detect because it usually happens in secret. Even if there are multiple victims, they may not know about each other, and each of them may be scared to come forward because they think they are alone. It’s even more important to be on the lookout for this type of harassment because it can quickly turn into full-blown sexual abuse.
Workplace sexual harassment doesn’t have to happen at work, either. It can happen on business trips, at after-work happy hours or even at home through text messages and emails. Regardless of where or when the harassment happens, even “off the clock,” it’s still sexual harassment, and it’s still your firm’s responsibility to address it.
How You Can Help Stop Harassment
You don’t have to resign yourself to working in an environment where you and your colleagues are subject to harassment. There are things you can do to put a stop to it, even as a young lawyer.
If you’re experiencing harassment, the most important thing you can do is keep a record of every incident. Save harassing emails and texts, and take detailed notes every time you hear a sexual comment or are touched inappropriately. If you have supportive colleagues, ask them to watch out for the harassing behavior and write down their own observations. They may be able to corroborate your story if necessary.
If you choose, you can report the harassment internally, which ideally will put a stop to it. However, if nothing comes of your report, or if you believe that reporting will only make things worse, it may be time to consider reporting to the EEOC and filing a lawsuit. Although very few victims file lawsuits, the majority who do either win their cases or receive settlements. Large verdicts are becoming more common as more juries are aware of harassment and sympathize with victims.
If you haven’t experienced harassment, you can still support those who have. Look for the subtle signs: a partner who routinely stands very close to paralegals, a male attorney who always seems to make women uncomfortable when he walks in the room, or a partner who has a close relationship with an associate but suddenly turns on her. If you think you see someone being harassed, try to diffuse the situation and let them know you’re on their side.
If someone at your firm reports harassment, believe them. Filing a report is such a difficult and humiliating thing to do that, in most cases, victims only do it when there’s no other option. Very few people file false reports, so assume that the victim is telling the truth. Support their decision, and speak up if others are disparaging them for coming forward.
You can also help change the culture of your firm by getting involved. If your firm doesn’t already have a strong sexual harassment policy, choose a receptive partner, and suggest that your firm implement one. There is a wealth of information showing the benefits of sexual harassment training (and the consequences of failing to prevent harassment). You can also get involved in diversity initiatives and support the hiring of more women and minority lawyers. The more people in law who are willing to speak up, the sooner sexual harassment will be a thing of the past.