January was not a positive month for the UK legal sector press coverage. Firstly, following a Freedom of Information response by the SRA, and as reported in The Guardian, it has been revealed that reports of sexual misconduct within law firms have more than doubled in less than five years (to 63 in 2018/19). Only a few days later, the Financial Times published an article entitled, ‘Drinking culture in legal world under scrutiny following scandals’. While of course, the overwhelming majority within the legal profession would never think to behave in such a manner, those in positions of responsibility within law firms should be on alert that such actions can cause serious harm both to the welfare of employees and their firm’s reputation.
Is the legal sector in danger of becoming embroiled in the #metoo scandal?
Unfortunately, press-coverage of sexual misconduct by some in the legal profession is nothing new. Only in May 2019, it was reported that bullying and sexual harassment was “rife in the legal profession”. A survey by the International Bar Association found that levels of such behaviour are above international average in the UK, with 62% of females and 41% of male respondents reporting they had experienced bullying in the workplace.
Then there are the scandals which rocked legal giants Baker McKenzie and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In both of these firms, there were serious allegations of excessive alcohol consumption and sexual harassment.
While these figures and cases make for worrying reading, there are signs things are changing. According to an account by one junior lawyer, as reported in the Financial Times , “Partners [senior lawyers] are terrified of going drinking with associates now…And there’s basically an informal policy now that partners should never go drinking with female associates.”
Several large law firms have now made changes in a bid to bring matters under control. Slaughter and May have apparently stopped subsidised skiing trips following a report of sexual harassment, Linklaters now has a ‘sober’ chaperone scheme, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have established a ‘conduct committee’ that can impose ‘bad behaviour’ fines on partners who have received final warnings about their behaviour of up to one-fifth of the staff member’s profit share for one year.
How can law firms mitigate the risk of sexual misconduct?
There is little doubt that the SRA is very keen to ensure sexual misconduct is eliminated from the legal profession and will impose heavy penalties where it is discovered. To this end, they publish resources for employers on sexual harassment in the workplace. They also recommend following the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ‘Sexual harassment and harassment at work: Technical guidance’ , which recommends having in place “effective and well communicated policies and practices which aim to prevent harassment and victimisation.”
As the EHRC state, “…it is important to understand that conduct can amount to harassment or sexual harassment even if that is not how it was intended”. It is very likely that within any law firm, even given the high level of legal knowledge within the organisation, there may be a lack of understanding as to what constitutes sexual harassment, or any other forms of unwanted conduct. By making sure that everyone is trained on what is meant by harassment and damage that it can cause to individuals, law firms can start to alter their collective culture and change outmoded assumptions.
HR policies and procedures on sexual harassment, which are easily accessible, consistently enforced and regularly updated, provide a highly effective tool. They act as a reference point for all employees, detailing the organisation’s position on harassment, the circumstances which may lead to disciplinary action, what is meant by protected characteristics, an anti-harassment procedure, and a comprehensive complaints procedure.
Regularly Assessing the risk of harassment
One of the single best strategies for any law firm is to regularly undertake an assessment of the risk of harassment across the business. According to the EHRC, risks factors may include:
- power imbalances
- job insecurity
- lone working
- the presence of alcohol
- customer-facing duties
- events that raise tensions locally or nationally
- lack of diversity in the workforce, and
- workers being placed on secondment
Risk assessment is an invaluable undertaking which can enable a law firm to systematically and proactively identify any potential risks of harassment and put in place plans to mitigate or remove them.
Given the changes by some of the leading UK law firms, there is every reason to hope that sexual harassment and unwanted behaviour linked to excessive alcohol consumption may become a remnant of the past. It is within the power of all law firms to choose to be progressive when it comes to workers’ rights. By doing so, you will be protecting the well-being and interests of your staff members and the hard-won reputation of your firm. Don’t leave anything to chance.
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