On 12 June 2020, Baker McKenzie’s former London senior partner was fined £55,000 for serious professional misconduct. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found that Gary Senior attempted to embrace and kiss a junior colleague in 2012 and then tried to use his senior position to influence the investigation into the incident.
Mr Senior also had to pay £40,000 to cover the Solicitor Regulatory Authority’s (SRA) costs. However, the firm, along with two of its former members, were cleared by the SDT.
Why are there so many claims of sexual misconduct coming to light
The #MeToo movement empowered women who have for years been subjected to inappropriate sexual conduct and the subsequent adverse consequences of calling out such conduct, to speak up and take action.
Although a vast majority of the profession behave in an appropriate and lawful manner, the legal profession could provide an ideal environment for misconduct. Junior lawyers and barristers are reliant on senior partners/barristers to guide them and provide work. The sway those at the top hold over the careers of juniors may, in some cases, result in unacceptable incidents, be they sexual harassment or assault and/or bullying.
One solicitor who deals with employment discrimination matters told The Times earlier this year:
“You’ve got guys in positions of power, the rainmakers, who bring in loads of money and work and they have the power to destroy your career, or at least stall it – to overlook you for partnership or whatever. It’s a classic male hierarchy, where the boys protect the boys and harassment is seen as a bit of fun.”
Many of the incidents reported in The Times article and other publications would be, if proven, serious criminal offences.
SRA investigations into sexual misconduct
In 2018, the SRA faced heavy criticism for failing to act on workplace harassment within the legal profession. It is now dealing with around 117 matters relating to sexual misconduct.
The success rate of the SRA in sexual misconduct cases is patchy. In October 2018 the SRA told the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee it had 50 ongoing cases, while 63 were referred to the regulator in 2019. However, despite the growing number of sexual misconduct cases reported to the SRA, only seven of these matters reached the SDT in 2019.
However, it must be noted that even the Crown Prosecution Service struggles to obtain sexual assault convictions, especially concerning rape.
According to figures released in 2019, there were a record 58,657 allegations of rape in the year up to March, but only 1,925 successful prosecutions. Sexual offences are notoriously hard to prove, and the legal process can have a devastating impact on the victim’s mental health. And in the case of false accusations , the alleged perpetrator (the victim of the false allegation), faces personal and professional ruin.
The world has dramatically changed over the past five years. Not only are victims of sexual misconduct coming forward, NDAs – the traditional weapon of silence –should no longer be used to prevent people subjected to harassment or assault speaking out.
Acas chief executive Susan Clews, told the BBC : “The news has reported on victims coming forward that have alleged appalling abuse by high-profile figures who have then tried to use NDAs to silence whistleblowers.
“NDAs can be used legitimately in some situations but they should not be used routinely or to prevent someone from reporting sexual harassment, discrimination or whistleblowing at work.”
Everyone has the right to feel safe at work. For law firms, ensuring all members of staff are subject to a code of behavior that makes sexual misconduct unacceptable will strengthen businesses reputations and employees’ morale.
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