British lawyers are more likely to be bullied in the workplace than their colleagues elsewhere in the world, the largest ever global study of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession has found.
But it suggested that adopting anti-bullying policies, despite a lack of confidence in them, did have a positive impact on behaviour.
Almost two-thirds (62%) of female and 41% of male lawyers in the UK said they had been bullied, compared to international averages of 55% and 30%.
The proportion of women reporting sexual harassment was slightly above the norm at 38%, compared to 36.6% globally, while for men it was slightly below at 6%, compared to 7.4%.
The International Bar Association (IBA) said its report Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession was based on responses from 6,980 lawyers around the world, of which 715 were from the UK.
One female UK lawyer was quoted as saying: “I was advised by the (female) practice manager that if I showed a sexual interest in my principal, he would be nicer to me. This was after he had thrown a phone at my head.”
A man at a barristers’ chambers said: “I often received comments from my supervisor that she wanted to ‘fuck me’. Any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it.”
The IBA found that lawyers in the UK who reported bullying had an “overwhelmingly negative” experience.
A large majority (82%) described the response of their employers as “insufficient or negligible”, while in 84% of cases the perpetrator was not sanctioned.
Those who reported sexual harassment did not fare much better, with 71% describing the response as “insufficient or negligible”, and 74% of cases not being reported in the first place.
“The partners closed ranks around the perpetrator [of seriously inappropriate physical contact],” the report quoted one UK woman saying.
“The firm did nothing to sanction him and later promoted him into a more senior, but marginally less public position. They offered me no support or reassurances about my career. I felt I had no choice but to leave.”
Legal workplaces in the UK were far more likely to have anti-bullying policies in place than the international average – 79% compared to 53%.
Despite limited confidence in those responsible for the policies (60% in the UK, compared to 65% internationally), the IBA said British lawyers at workplaces with policies in place experienced “considerably less” bullying.
“There is also a link between workplaces running training and less bullying and sexual harassment occurring in those workplaces.
“While training does not appear to increase absolute reporting rates, and perceptions of efficacy are poor (8% said the training was excellent while 33% rated the programme as insufficient or negligible), those who have been trained are more likely to use internal workplace channels to report incidents.”
The IBA said its report showed that bullying and harassment were “rife in the legal profession” across the world, with “chronic underreporting of incidents”, particularly in sexual harassment cases.
The most common type of bullying was ridicule or demeaning language, followed by “overbearing supervision, undermining of work output or constant unproductive criticism”, misuse of power or position, “being deliberately given too much or too little work or work inadequate to the position” and exclusion or victimisation.
The IBA called on employers to revise and implement policies and standards, introduce regular training and improve existing reporting channels.
The association said there was “both appetite for change and an active coalition of stakeholders working towards it”, but the momentum had to be maintained.
“Change is not inevitable… there have been #MeToo-like moments before. During stakeholder engagement, one eminent academic mused that it felt like she had been discussing these issues for her entire (lengthy) professional life.
“Change will only occur through concerted, collective efforts. Otherwise, there is a risk that the #MeToo momentum will dissipate and a similar report will be written in another two decades, highlighting the same problems and again calling for change.”
The IBA recommended that employers consider establishing “permanent committees with mandates for maintaining efforts to address bullying and sexual harassment, alongside improving visibility of these issues at senior leadership levels”.
Bar associations and law societies “should take similar action, creating standing working groups and other institutional actors to initiate and implement strategies to eliminate such conduct”.
The IBA promised to carry out a follow-up survey to the report in five years’ time, and said its president, Horacio Bernardes Neto, would be publishing an open letter highlighting the report’s findings and calling for change.
A large-scale survey of lawyers around the world published by the IBA in December 2017, Women in Commercial Legal Practice, found “alarming levels of bullying and intimidation”, with half of the 4,000 female lawyers involved said they had experienced bullying.