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Enough is enough

Enough is enough

Stop workplace harassment in the profession

The Dignity Matters report marks a turning point in tackling bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment in the profession, with the Law Society pledging firm action on all of its recommendations. Mark McDermott reports.

The Law Society has committed to supporting the solicitors’ profession in addressing bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment in law firms and other workplaces, following the stark findings of its Dignity Matters report, which was published on 20 October.

Enough is enough

Enough is enough

The research, which included a survey of members and trainees, was initiated by the Law Society and conducted by Crowe. It reveals unacceptable levels of bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment in the solicitors’ profession; significant underreporting of incidents; and limited consequences for those who have engaged in such behaviour.

The Law Society’s report has its roots in the 2019 International Bar Association (IBA) Us Too survey, which revealed high levels of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the global legal professions. On foot of that survey, the Law Society initiated its Dignity Matters survey so that it could better understand the extent of these issues in Ireland.

Key findings

More than 1,560 solicitors and trainees responded to the survey – 68% of respondents were women and 32% men. The key findings revealed in the Dignity Matters report include:

  • Bullying: one in two men and one in three women experienced bullying,
  • Harassment: one in two women and one in nine men experienced harassment,
  • Sexual harassment: one in two women and one in eight men experienced sexual harassment,
  • A consistent majority did not report their experience of bullying (73%) or harassment (71%), with this figure rising to 91% for experiences of sexual harassment,
  • Insofar as respondents were aware, reporting resulted in no sanctions for the persons who engaged in 88% of bullying incidences, 89% of harassment, and 78% of sexual harassment,
  • The most prominent reason provided by respondents for not reporting bullying (70%), harassment (76%), and sexual harassment (49%) was the profile or status of the person who engaged in these behaviours, and
  • Experience of bullying (46%), harassment (50%), or sexual harassment (21%) has contributed to respondents leaving their workplace.

Commenting on the report, Law Society Senior Vice-President Michelle Ní Longáin said: “These findings, while troubling, are a collective call to action to reaffirm our commitment to eliminating behaviour that has no place in our profession.”

She added: “The Law Society has embarked on an ambitious, evidence-based programme of change to support a culture of dignity, respect, and inclusivity in the solicitors’ profession.”

The report includes a range of recommendations that aim to bring about a culture change in how these matters are dealt with throughout the profession. Among them, the Law Society has committed to supporting the profession in addressing bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment, by:

  • Raising awareness of the issues and their impact in order to normalise the conversation,
  • Implementing and revising policies and standards so that they are active and meaningful,
  • Providing regular and customised training,
  • Increasing dialogue and sharing best practice across the legal professions and other sectors,
  • Underlining the importance of leadership and ownership of positive workplace behaviours,
  • Exploring flexible reporting models, and
  • Engaging with younger and diverse members of the profession.

Endemic problem?

Understandably, the report has been garnering much media attention. On RTÉ radio’s Drivetime programme on 20 October, anchor Sarah McInerney quizzed the senior vice-president:

“One of the things that really struck me is that, in terms of people witnessing other people being victims of sexual harassment or commentary, 77% of people witnessed sexist comments, including inappropriate jokes about sex or gender; 66% witnessed sexually inappropriate comments being made to other people; 30% witnessed inappropriate physical contact.

“Everyone knows, on those figures – everyone in the profession knows that this is going on. Did you need the 2019 report from the IBA to tell you that this is going on when you see figures like that?”

Ní Longáin responded: “I think we don’t want to operate just on the basis of anecdotal comment – that’s all we had until now. Now we have a report, and we have case studies within it, we have individual stories told, and we have information that empowers us to go forward.

“We were already providing supports, training, continuing professional development, training of students in the Law School – so that was already happening. But it’s evident from this that we need to do more. We’re absolutely not there yet. And we were right to be providing those supports, but we will develop those further.”

The senior vice-president said that the Law Society was now turning all of its attention to the report’s recommendations: “That’s what we’re going to act on. We have recommendations to support our profession to address harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment, and they are to raise awareness of the issues and their impact, to normalise the conversation.

“We’re going to implement and revise policies and standards, so that they’re active and meaningful – not a policy on a shelf or in a file site – and to provide regular and customised training to increase the dialogue and the best-practice sharing across the legal professions and other sectors, and to underline the importance of leadership and the ownership of positive workplace behaviours.

“We’ll also explore flexible reporting models and engage with our younger and diverse members of the profession,” she said, “because we know that all our solicitors have the right to a safe working environment, as do our trainees.”

Ní Longáin went on to describe the supports currently available to solicitors and trainees suffering from bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment, including LegalMind, the confidential, independent, low-cost mental-health support for members and their family members; the Law School’s ‘Shrink Me’ programme, provided by the Law School Counselling Service for trainee solicitors; the online Professional Wellbeing Hub; and the Professional Wellbeing Charter.

“We can do more, an awful lot more,” Ní Longáin continued, “because we recognise that; and that’s why I’m here. That’s why we’ve published the report rather than keep it internal. Instead, we’re making sure that we get it out there – that our members know, and that the public knows, and that we know we’ll be held to account for what we do in relation to this. And we will deal with it – we’re determined to deal with it.”

She then addressed the experiences aired in the report, “which include a wide range of members of the profession – not only the younger members, I’m sorry to say; it’s others as well. We will ensure that our members, whoever they are – whether they’re the solicitors who are employed, whether they’re employers – that they know that there is a right to a safe working environment, free from these negative workplace experiences, and we’re going to work with them to eliminate that behaviour.”

Reported experiences

The reported experiences published (with permission) in the report make for difficult reading:

  • “The interviewee described a manic workplace where tasks would be set and priorities revised within 30 minutes to an hour and continuous queries on work status: ‘Have you finished that?’, ‘Is this done yet?’, ‘Where’s this?’. The interviewee described continuous pressure with nobody left alone long enough to get anything completed. The principal’s erratic emotional demeanour was described as impacting on the working environment.”
  • “The interviewee sought to address the situation with the principal, whose response was to demean the interviewee’s work saying, ‘I’m really doubting this now. You didn’t give the impression at all that you were a slow worker and that you were not capable of doing a handful of tasks together.’ Other examples of what was described as constant belittling and undermining behaviour included reading the interviewee’s work, sometimes in a group setting, and commenting: ‘This doesn’t even make sense’, ‘This is laughable’, etc.”
  • “The interviewee described difficulties introduced deliberately when they had family responsibilities to attend to, particularly after the arrival of a new baby. While working late was the norm, a request to leave by 6pm one day per week resulted in comments such as: ‘This is what it takes to be a successful lawyer’; ‘Wanting to be home with your family at different times is not going to cut it.’ The interviewee believes this was deliberate and aimed at their parental responsibilities.”
  • “In what the interviewee outlined as a turning point, leave was refused to attend a funeral of a close personal friend (as the leave application had not been submitted within the requisite period). Additional tasks were introduced ‘deliberately’ late the same day, which were described as urgent, but known not to be. The interviewee worked until between 1am and 2am for the following two nights to ensure attendance at the funeral.”
  • “The interviewee felt there was nowhere to go to seek support with the difficulties being experienced, as the person involved is an employment law solicitor and principal of the practice and, as such, the interviewee believed it was useless to try exercise their rights.”

One interviewee’s suggestions for future changes were that:

  • There should be someone to talk to, in order to avoid comments afterwards, such as ‘why didn’t you talk to someone?’
  • An attestation be added to the practising certificate application along the lines that the person has contributed to a safe working environment for all, so that consideration of such matters occurs at least once a year,
  • The Gazette be utilised to get this information in front of people on how to make the profession a safe place to work, what resources are available, and what help is available,
  • Mandatory CPD (one-hour compulsory) around bullying, etc, and safe working environments be introduced with, at the end, clear instructions of where to find support if difficulties are being experienced.

Unwelcome sexual encounter

Another interviewee referred to “an unwelcome sexual encounter with a colleague that took place at a non-work-related event. Having confided in other friends/colleagues from work, the interviewee was distressed by the subsequent working environment with colleagues (at least some of whom had been at the same non-work event) in circumstances where the interviewee’s version of events was not accepted (‘there are two sides to every story’).

The interviewee was subsequently informed by one colleague/friend that the matter was being discussed in the workplace, disseminating reports of the incident to others who had not previously been aware of the situation. The interviewee told the alleged perpetrator of the unwelcome sexual encounter that they should never speak to them again.

“The interviewee did not raise the matter formally at work as it would be escalated and because of fear in terms of career and career progression. The day-to-day impact of meeting colleagues in the difficult and hostile environment resulting from the incident and related discussions has been alleviated by working at home caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The interviewee, feeling there were no supports available, considered the employee assistance arrangements, but decided to seek support privately.

“The interviewee stated it would help a lot if HR could be asked not to put the alleged perpetrator in the interviewee’s work sphere without indicating why this is required, but they understand this is ‘neither feasible nor practical’. The interviewee suggests that arrangements could be put in place to protect a person in that position without having to disclose fully and create a full investigation. Finally, the interviewee pointed out it is ‘still a very male-dominated profession’, making it difficult for these things to be resolved.”

Safe workplace

Michelle Ní Longáin says that the Law Society is proud to have taken “a proactive approach in understanding the extent of these issues”. And she has commended the Society’s members for providing their experiences of difficult situations concerning highly sensitive subjects.

“All solicitors have the right to a safe working environment, as do all workers in every occupation – free from the prospect of negative workplace experiences,” she stated. “We will work with our members to eliminate behaviour that does not align with the values of integrity, trust, and respect that are the foundation of our profession.”

As part of the Society’s commitment to improving gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in the profession, the senior vice-president said that the Society was ready to take further action in order to bring about a sea change in the profession:

“We in the Law Society will take this report away and consider it across the different aspects of our functioning, to look at everything we can do to strengthen the supports that are there – the policies, the charters, the information that people need – so that we change the culture. We look forward to making meaningful progress on the Dignity Matters recommendations in the coming months and years,” she said.

“Bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment are present in all professions and industries,” Ní Longáin added. “It is important to identify the issues and then take action – and we hope our efforts will encourage others to do the same,” she concluded. 

Supports available

The Law Society offers a range of supports for solicitors affected by the issues highlighted in the Dignity Matters report.

These include LegalMind – a confidential, independent, low-cost mental-health support for members; and the Professional Wellbeing Hub, which offers helpful information and signposts to further resources.

Mark McDermott is editor of the Law Society Gazette

Read and print a PDF of this article here.