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We Need to Talk About Law’s Dirty Little Secret…

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Automio’s Customer Success Manager, Olivia Wensley, bravely writes about her experiences with sexual harassment in law firms.

Confronting and raw – it’s a must read.

When I read the reports about Russell McVeagh’s graduate program – and the harassment experienced by some interns, my only surprise was why is this making the news?

The reporting makes it appear that this is somehow an unusual experience. Everyone is “shocked”!

But… they aren’t shocked, really.

The thing is, sexual harassment is the norm. And everyone in our profession knows it. There is nothing new, or shocking about this kind of experience – this is simply “par for the course” in many (most) law firms.

Young women think it is normal to put up with such rubbish behaviour, and that getting through it is “earning your stripes”.

The power balance is skewed – the normal scenario involves a powerful male Partner, and a young female* intern or Solicitor. The Partner holds all the power. He literally holds the young woman’s whole future career in his hands.

To speak out or make a complaint, would have disastrous consequences. To rebuff his advances would also have grave implications for her career. The Partner knows she will be afraid to speak out.

The offenders are not the only ones complicit. They are surrounded by enablers which allow this behaviour as it is a “cultural norm” and widely accepted. Their behaviour is commonly defended by others, with lines such as “oh, that’s just his sense of humour” and “at least he thinks you’re pretty”.

The Office Managers, HR, the CEO and Board Members – they all want to protect their cash cow, the Partner – so they turn a blind eye, enabling his behaviour.

Sexual harassment is the industry norm – why aren’t we talking about it?

“I’ve just hired a nice little piece of ass for you” is how the Partner announced I had been hired – he declared this loudly to a male Associate.To no surprise, this Associate was assigned as my “mentor” – the implication was clear. It made me feel sick.

The culture at this organisation was nothing short of disgraceful and debaucherous, like something out of The Wolf on Wall Street. The parties were frequent. Alcohol flowed freely. Women were treated like objects, and plied with drinks – only to wake up in the morning with a bad headache and serious regrets.

Almost every single Solicitor was a young, attractive female – the Partners were all male. The incidents are too many to list – and I’ve suppressed so many memories. I have had so many offensive things be said and done to me, or that I have witnessed, that I could write a novel.

The worst incident involved a Partner committing an overtly sexual act on a new female Solicitor in a public setting, in front of other staff (who were aware of what was happening). While this behaviour was consensual, it was appalling – the power balance was completely skewed. It horrified the other staff present.

My own worst sexual harassment experience – he was 65, I was 25 – I was sitting on a couch in a darkly lit room at the annual Legal Christmas party. He came and sat next to me, and put his hand on my thigh.

He whispered something I can’t even say out loud without my throat seizing up. It was the most depraved, kinky s*** I’ve ever heard. It makes my eyes water thinking about it. He told me about a sexual fetish act he wanted to do to me, which involved him and my secretary. He said some 10/10 f***** up stuff which would make Christian Grey blush.

I was paralysed with fear. This man was seriously senior – he was my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss at a large global institution. He could have ruined me with a single email.

I was told it wasn’t worth escalating about because a) no-one would believe me, b) nothing would happen and c) it would ruin my career. So nothing happened.

Sadly, this is the choice faced by young women – either put up and shut up, or lose your career. Those who are brave and make a complaint are often hushed with settlements – so the offenders can continue to offend.

Junior Solicitors know they are easily replaceable, and it is futile to make a complaint, as the Law Firm will never side with them. This is because HR, the Office Manager, the CEO and other management staff – are controlled by the Partners.

The Partners have the money, and the control. They can behave as they please.

As if the odds aren’t stacked against us already – women have to battle against pay disparity and sexist discrimination, without having to deal with that crap. Can’t we just be left alone to do our jobs?

The Law Society’s response

I was disheartened to read the New Zealand Law Society’s response to the Russell McVeagh scandal – saying that victims need to speak up and report offenders.

This is completely unrealistic – why should the onus be put on the victim? They are the vulnerable party, with the most to lose from speaking up.

Why not focus on seeking out the offenders? Putting the blame on the victim isn’t the answer. There are many parties that know what is happening within a firm – but most of the time, the offender is protected due to status and power.

The New Zealand Law Society needs to take action, instead of merely paying lip service to the problem.

Here are some ideas:

  • Create an independent committee to formally investigate this issue, and to come up with recommendations on how to fix this issue.
  • Find out the scope of the problem, through a survey. In my 10 years, I have never been asked if I have experienced sexual harassment. The Law Society needs to understand how serious and widespread this issue is.
  • An anonymous tip-off service, where victims or witnesses of sexual harassment can notify the Law Society. Those who are identified as harassers should have to undergo compulsory education on sexual harassment.
  • Create an app – where the Practice Manager / HR department can receive an anonymous tip off from staff members too afraid to be identified.
  • Encourage firms to foster a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated. This needs to come from the top down – the Partners need to be firm that such harassment will not be tolerated among their own. They should not be afraid to oust offenders, even if it hits them in the wallet.
  • Randomly audit firms HR files – and speak to staff – to determine whether the firm has a problem with sexual harassment.
  • Compulsory notification of any settlement, where sexual harassment allegations have been made. Law firms should not be able to silence victims of sexual harassment through confidential settlements.
  • Enforcement Rule 8.3 (Reporting Professional Misconduct) – where sexual harassment has not been reported, there should be harsh consequences for the firm involved. The enablers who witness this behaviour and do not report it, should also face repercussions.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ways the New Zealand Law Society could address this issue.

What can you do?

If you think this behaviour is unacceptable – we need to band together to have our #TIMESUP movement in the legal profession. This behaviour should no longer be tolerated.

I’d love to hear your story. Please write to me and share your thoughts and/or experiences with sexual harassment in the legal profession – as I would like to write a follow up piece.

As I know this is a sensitive topic, I assure you I will protect your confidentiality.

*I acknowledge that sexual harassment is not limited to females – but men can also experience it. However, I am speaking from my personal experience.

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