Research perspectives

Bullying and sexual harassment rife in the legal profession in the UK – and worldwide

As part of a global survey in 2018 on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession, the International Bar Association (IBA) sought the views of 7,000 individuals from 135 countries across a spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary. The results are now analysed in the recent report “US Too?”

It provides considerable evidence that bullying and sexual harassment are rife. Overall approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment. One in three female respondents had been sexually harassed in a workplace context, as had one in fourteen male respondents. This is not a “historic” problem as the survey showed such issues continuing apace over the previous 12 months.

The survey also identified considerable underreporting of incidents, with 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases not reported, due particularly to the profile of the perpetrator and the victim’s fear of repercussions. Even when cases are reported, official responses are considered insufficient or negligible, with the perpetrators rarely sanctioned. The report concludes that legal workplaces are not doing enough: policies – although in place in more than half of workplaces – are having little impact, whilst training has taken place only one in five workplaces.

In the UK 715 legal professionals responded to the survey, mostly from within law firms. It found that levels of bullying are above the global average, with 62% of female respondents and 41% of male respondents reporting that they had been bullied. Cases of sexual harassment are similar to the global average, affecting 38% of female respondents and 6% of male respondents. 82% of victims reported that their workplace’s response was insufficient or negligible; in 84% of cases the perpetrator was not sanctioned; 74% of cases are not reported and, in the cases that are reported, the response was insufficient or negligible 71% of the time.

Although there is considerably greater adoption of anti-bullying and sexual harassment policies (79% of workplaces compared to 53% globally), confidence in those responsible for the policies is below the international average (60% compared with 65% globally). However there appears to be less bullying in those workplaces with policies, and there is also a link between workplace training and lower incidence of bullying and sexual harassment. The survey found that 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.

In commenting on the survey results, B3sixty Director and barrister at Cloister Chambers Sally Cowen said that whilst they are quite shocking and sad, she didn’t think anyone in the legal profession would be surprised. “Lawyers are not immune from the workplace behaviours which other people experience” she said. Sally added that the most disappointing statistic in the report is that these behaviours were reported as continuing to happen, proving that it is a very current concern. She hoped that the report would gain the publicity it deserved and provide the momentum to ensure that all firms and chambers in the UK re-assess their policies, procedures and systems for the reporting and handling of bullying and sexual harassment.