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Legal profession at risk of mental health hypocrisy

Shocking indictment of legal profession in global survey, suggesting a clarion call that profession needs to go beyond campaigns and embed good behaviours.

Bullying and sexual harassment rife among lawyers, global survey finds as IBA chief exhorts practitioners to “be of good character,” while UK and government workers singled out. With the UK Mental Health Awareness Week in full swing, reality bit into the campaign with a survey revealing levels of bullying in the UK are above the international average.


The survey of almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries was carried out by the International Bar Association, the London-based umbrella body which brings together the legal profession around the world. The study found 62 per cent of female respondents and 41 per cent of male respondents reported being bullied in connection with their employment. By comparison, the international averages were 55 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. Sexual harassment in the UK aligns with the global average, with 38 per cent of female and 6 per cent of male respondents reporting abuse, compared to international levels of 37 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. Over 700 British lawyers participated in the survey. The IBA report also found “chronic underreporting” of incidents, with 57 per cent of bullying cases and 75 per cent of sexual harassment cases globally not reported. Chief among the reasons is  fear of career repercussions. IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto said the study provided the first global proof that “bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession”. Mr Neto added, “Following the global #MeToo movement, the legal profession has regularly been called upon to advise other sectors on these issues. Our ability to advise effectively and drive broader societal change is undermined if we do not address the risk of hypocrisy.”

Clarion call

Government legal workplaces were reported to have the highest prevalence of bullying, with almost 70 per cent of respondents recording aggressive or uncivil behaviour. Private practice had the lowest rate of bullying, 39 per cent, while private sector in-house workplaces and barristers’ chambers reported around 47 per cent. Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, the inaugural chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, said in a foreword to the IBA report that it was “a clarion call for urgent action.” Ms Gillard said “As the #MeToo movement has shown, women are no longer prepared to be silent. The demands for deep-seated reform are insistent and determined,” adding “After all this activity, the world cannot lapse back into shameful silence.” Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said “Businesses, including law firms, should examine their workplace culture and procedures for dealing with complaints. Just as anyone is protected by the law, they should also be protected by employers.”

Not exempt

The IBA report includes a number of stories of abuse, including current tribunal case of a junior solicitor alleging she was forced to attend a sex show with a senior partner and had her employment terminated after rebuffing his advances; and allegation denied. Higher levels of sexual harassment and bullying were also recorded in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The report found that younger legal professionals are disproportionately affected by both bullying and sexual harassment. Beth Hale, partner and general counsel at specialist employment and partnership law firm CM Murray, said “The findings aren’t entirely surprising – given all that has been revealed over the past 18 months in all industries, there is no reason to imagine law would be exempt. Like many others, the legal sector relies heavily on long working hours, frequent alcohol consumption and high stress atmospheres all of which are often triggers for sexual harassment. But we need to be leading the way to ensure these behaviours are eradicated in the workplace.”

This article was written by Dr. David Cowan and was first published in The Global Legal Post.