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Law Society programme to tackle bullying
Michelle Ní Longáin

20 Oct 2021 / law society Print

Law Society tackles bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the solicitors’ profession

“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.”

These were the words of the Law Society’s Senior Vice-President Michelle Ní Longáin (pictured) on 20 October, at the launch of its landmark Dignity Matters report, which addresses bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the solicitors’ profession.

The report highlights a range of evidence-based recommendations in order to bring about a culture change in how these matters are dealt with throughout the profession.

Dignity Matters is the result of a research study (including a members’ survey) that was initiated by the Law Society and conducted by Crowe, which shows 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 these behaviours.

The Law Society’s report has its roots in a 2019 International Bar Association’s (IBA) survey that revealed high levels of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the global legal professions. The ‘Dignity Matters’ survey was initiated by the Law Society on foot of that survey, in order to understand the extent of these issues in an Irish context.

Call to action

Commenting on the Dignity Matters report, 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.”

The key findings reported by respondents in the ‘Dignity Matters’ survey include:

  • One in three women and one in two men experienced bullying,
  • One in two women and one in nine men experienced 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,
  • In so far 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.

Leading by example

Commenting on the importance of leading by example, Michelle Ní Longáin said: “In advance of this survey, the Law Society has and will continue to address, in a proactive way, the issues raised in the report through a range of member supports.

“These include an online Professional Wellbeing Hub with signposting to independent resources, mental-health supports, training, mentoring, and charters to support workplace efforts to stamp out this type of behaviour.”

She added: “The future of our profession is more inclusive and has more diversity in leadership roles. This requires a professional culture grounded in dignity and respect.”

As part of the Law 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.

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

Raising awareness

Among the recommendations contained within the Dignity Matters report, 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.

Safe workplace environment

“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,” the senior-vice president 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.”

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

“We look forward to making meaningful progress on the Dignity Matters recommendations in the coming months and years,” Michelle Ní Longáin 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 popular Professional Wellbeing Hub, which offers helpful information and signposts to further resources.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland