Professional services firms are not immune to the allegations of sexual misconduct that have featured so heavily in the headlines over recent months. In fact, the high pressure, the long-hours culture, the hierarchical structures, often laissez-faire senior management style and the frequent drinking at work events have the potential to make law firms hotbeds for such allegations. A recent survey by The Lawyer found 42 per cent of women working in law firms had experienced sexual harassment; a previous one by Legal Week put the figure at two thirds.So, is it time for our profession to take stock and consider whether it is doing enough to prevent sexual harassment? The Law Society is reportedly working on guidelines for law firms on how to deal with these issues in the workplace.
In giving evidence to the Commons women and equalities select committee inquiry into workplace sexual harassment a few weeks ago, I made recommendations relevant to all workplaces. How many of these are very specifically applicable to our profession? Even in the absence of specific guidance or legislative intervention, there are steps that law firms could be taking now to reduce the risks — for their employees, for their partners and for themselves.
First, mandatory, proactive employer risk assessments across all sectors. This is something law firms could start carrying out now. Firms should identify low, medium and high risks of sexual harassment within their specific business and take steps to reduce these risks. These steps should include targeted policies and procedures, tailored to address any particular issues identified, as well as training for partners and staff to reflect those targeted policies.
Policies should also take into account the interests of those accused of harassment, so that unproved allegations are not allowed to cause unwarranted reputational damage.
A significant issue is that victims are reluctant to come forward. Appointing a member of senior management as a sexual harassment reporting officer, trained in these issues and with overall accountability to ensure they are effectively handled and reported to the compliance officer for legal practice, would go some way to addressing this. So would an information campaign letting staff know what harassment is, how to report it and encouraging reports from colleagues who are aware of harassment so that the onus is not solely on victims.
A stark contrast can be drawn between the huge resources that law firms are pouring into compliance with anti-money-laundering regulations and the GDPR, compared with the at times perfunctory effort by some firms to protect staff from sexual harassment.
Monitoring of the risk levels should include a review of all law firm recruitment policies. Specifically, firms could consider requiring all new recruits, including lateral partner hires, to confirm whether or not they have been the subject of formal or informal harassment complaints in previous roles and what the outcomes have been.
Finally, we should look to legislative change. Third-party harassment protections, removed in 2013, should be reinstated and extended. Regardless, firms should take proactive steps to prevent harassment of their staff by clients and referrers as soon as they become aware of an incident. Our sector is reliant on long-term clients, which may mean that inappropriate actions could be overlooked by some so as not to put fee income at risk.
Law firms have an opportunity and a responsibility to lead by example. They should ensure that all allegations are properly investigated. Firms should also reflect carefully on the extent to which any related settlement might include confidentiality undertakings, bearing in mind the legal limitations of such provisions and our ethical responsibilities as lawyers.
I don’t think the sexual harassment storm in the legal sector has really hit yet. Firms would be well advised to take action before it does.
By Clare Murray, first published in The Times