How can law firms prevent bullying and harassment?

How can law firms prevent bullying and harassment?

Following the International Bar Association’s recent findings on the alarming prevalence of bullying and harassment within the legal profession, the spotlight has turned onto law firms and the responsibility they bear for fostering this culture. Harriet Bowtell, senior associate at Jones Chase Employment Lawyers, examines the endemic problems within the profession, and discusses what law firms can do to clamp down on harassment and bullying in the workplace.

 

The levels of bullying in the UK—62% of female and 41% of male respondents—are higher than the international average of 55% and 30%. Why might this be?

The legal profession in the UK is steeped in tradition and history. The dominating role that men and the concept of masculinity and hierarchy have played within the profession since its inception, although diminishing, is unfortunately still palpable.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) assessed data collected in 2017 from law firms regulated by the body in England and Wales. Based on this data, although women made up 48% of lawyers in law firms, they only made up 33% of the workforce at partner level. The ratio of male to female equity partners—ie the decision makers in firms in the UK—is even more disparate.

Although there are many firms and chambers who recognise the importance of diversity, they are unfortunately hindered by seemingly high levels of inappropriate behaviour in the profession generally, which comes from the top down. This, coupled with the hyper-competitive work culture that this industry is infamous for, appears to be a breeding ground for bullying behaviour.

The report cites ‘chronic underreporting’ of incidents—to what extent do concerns around career progression and firm hierarchy exacerbate the problem? Are there any other reasons for underreporting and how can they be combated?

Obtaining a training contract from a UK law firm is a real source of pride for trainees. Having undergone a rigorous and competitive process involving completing a lengthy online application, sitting tests and daunting interviews, many trainees then take part in vacation schemes throughout which they are assessed. At the end of this gruelling scheme, trainees are formally interviewed for precious places at firms.

What follows is a two-year training contract at the firm

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