Bullying and harassment calls to legal helpline double

Rimmer: Large number of calls from young lawyers

Calls from lawyers complaining of bullying and harassment to health support charity LawCare almost doubled last year.

However, chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer said there had been “no massive spike in calls about sexual harassment” as a result of the #MeToo campaign, but it may have helped raised the general issue of harassment.

“Lawyers may be having a difficult time with their boss or feeling undermined or sidelined in the workplace,” Ms Rimmer said. “They might be returning to work after a period of illness and feel that people want to get rid of them.

“Lawyers from non-white backgrounds who feel discriminated against call us, and women who feel they might be being discriminated against because of childcare commitments.

“Sexual harassment is not what the bulk of calls are about, but all the publicity in the legal media might be creating a greater awareness of harassment in general.”

Ms Rimmer said a further reason for the rise in calls could be the impact of workplace stress on those responsible for bullying.

Calls to LawCare about bullying and harassment increased from 38 to 68 last year, though they still make up little more than 7% of the total. The charity received 932 calls in 2018, a rise of 5% on the year before.

As in previous years, the most common reasons for calling were workplace stress (26%) and depression (19%).

The majority of callers to the helpline were women (64%), while 48% were either trainees or pupils or had been qualified for five years or fewer.

Ms Rimmer said the large number of calls from young lawyers were no surprise, given the publicity around disciplinary cases such as that of Sovani James.

The High Court ordered Ms James to be struck off in November last year, quashing a suspended suspension imposed by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

The tribunal found there were “exceptional circumstances” linked to the young solicitor’s poor mental health for allowing her to remain in the profession despite being found to have acted dishonestly.

“Young lawyers have greater awareness of the issues and are more likely to come forward,” Ms Rimmer said. “As a group they are more vocal and the Junior Lawyers Division has done a lot of work on these cases.”

Ms Rimmer said callers, two thirds of whom were solicitors, were based in all kinds of law firm, from magic circle to sole practitioners, criminal law solicitors and conveyancers.

“This year there will be quite a lot of discussion about what we can do to improve workplace culture to create more supportive, emotionally healthy environments.”

Ms Rimmer advised lawyers who were experiencing bullying or harassment to look at their firm’s policies on the issue and the guidance produced by the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

“It’s very important to talk to someone – their line manager if possible, if not a trusted supervisor or colleague, or someone in their family or a friend.”

Ms Rimmer said that if the bullying was happening regularly, the lawyer involved should keep a diary.

She added that it was “absolutely essential” that law firms and other employers took action to “stamp it out” and “take the wellbeing and treatment of staff seriously”.

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