Behind Closed Doors: Sexual harassment, the covert epidemic of the legal sector?

July 3, 2020


2 min read

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What's going on here?

On Friday 12 June, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (“SDT”) fined Baker McKenzie’s former London managing partner £55,000 for serious professional misconduct, having attempted to hug and kiss a junior lawyer in 2012 and improperly influence the subsequent investigation. The ruling shines a light on the dark problem of sexual misconduct happening behind City law firm’s flashy office entrances.

What does this mean?

The Baker McKenzie partner admits he “bitterly regrets” his actions in 2012, his barrister describing them as a “moment of madness when he had had too much to drink”. Baker McKenzie, accused by the SRA of professional misconduct but found not guilty, has responded to the verdict by stating that the firm is different to what it was a decade ago and that they have “enhanced [their] internal policies”. The firm was under scrutiny for allowing the accused managing partner to influence the investigation with his seniority. This shows that individual cases of sexual misconduct or even harassment cannot be disassociated from the accused person’s firm, pointing to a need for responsibility and accountability of firms for their employees’ behaviour.

What's the big picture effect?

As the American activist, Verna Myers, put it, “diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is being asked to dance”. More female lawyers in the high-end of law firm’s hierarchy is not yet synonymous with a more harmonious atmosphere. 

Despite a growing trend in leading law firms’ commitment to Diversity & Inclusion, the complaints of inappropriate behaviour to the Solicitors Regulation Authority rose 152% between 2014-15 and 2018-19. This does not necessarily mean an increase in misconduct, but rather a greater incentive to speak out (possibly thanks to the #MeToo movement). In an era during which the empowerment of female voices is stronger than ever, allegations of sexual misconduct considerably tarnish the reputation of firms, whether that be with clients or graduates. Law firms have started taking steps to put a halt to the issue by, for example, limiting alcohol consumption at work events. 

Magic Circle firms have been particularly proactive. Slaughter & May cancelled their ski trips following allegations of sexual harassment during previous ones and Linklaters has implemented a sober supervisor scheme, whereby one person is responsible for staying sober and overseeing social events. 

To uphold their reputation, law firms need to ensure that the functioning of their inner network is consistent with their advertised values, beliefs and commitments. Creating a healthy culture around alcohol and educating lawyers on issues such as consent and sexual misconduct would be a step forward in curing this issue. Read this LittleLaw article for more information on the SRA’s recent investigations into the cases of top London lawyers accused of harassment.

Report written by Anaïs Itani

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