by Junior Idealist
I grew up in a supportive family and never doubted that I could be anything that I wanted to be. It never crossed my mind that being female or attending state school or having no legal professionals in the family could possibly influence my career. Ah, the naivety of youth.
I held these view up until I started work at a US law firm in London. I trained at this firm and qualified into the department of my choice. It was an eye opening experience. Over my time there I witnessed partners drunkenly groping all types of women ranging from trainees to secretaries to partners. When I first joined, we were warned about a particular male partner who liked to take out the youngest and most attractive male trainees, ply them with drink and attempt to take advantage of them. I was at the firm three years before I discovered he had a wife and child.
I heard about which partners to avoid at events. From the new partner who thought nothing of groping a senior associate at his first firm event to the established equity partner who threatened the trainee that his ‘friends’ would help him to ‘get her’.
Sadly these are just snippets of countless events I witnessed / heard about during my time at the firm. I, and many of the other associates and trainees, were outraged. We did what we could to reach out to people who were visibly upset by what had happened, including a number of associates who left the firm over their treatment, being unable to face these partners every day. I attended a HR meeting to provide support to a friend to discuss horrific sexual harassment complaints. I offered to be a witness to behaviour that I saw if someone wanted to raise an incident. And I hugged my friends on more than one occasion when they sobbed onto my shoulder at the hurt and disgust at how they had been treated but also at the unfairness that after years of hard work and being committed to their jobs, they now felt worthless and like their futures were in jeopardy.
A number of people never made formal complaints. The primary reasons given were ‘I’m a trainee/junior and they are a partner’, ‘I don’t want to ruin my career’ and ‘they’ve done this before and nothing happened, why would anything be different this time?’ The sad fact of the matter is, they were right. The few individuals who did raise complaints found their words fell on deaf ears. Advice such as ‘try to avoid them at drinks events’ or ‘I’ll have a quiet word with them’ barely touched the surface of persistent and nasty attacks designed to undermine and frighten the associates in the office. It was only when Roll on Friday published an article two years after one of the more prolific attacks that (very gentle) action was taken against one individual.
And that, for me, is the true crime. Not that these incidents happened in the first place, but that nothing was done about them when they were reported. It reinforces the idea that this behaviour is acceptable and that we are disposable.
My experiences were by no means all negative. I made some incredibly strong friendships at this firm and learned a lot from some truly great mentors and lawyers. One partner in my team particularly stood out. He was aware of some of the problems with sexual harassment and spoke of his frustration at feeling unable to do anything about it. He was an incredibly good lawyer and supportive mentor and he made me strive to be better at my job. When I resigned we were both upset but I genuinely believed that we would stay in touch.
I made no secret of the reasons for my resignation. Having tried so hard to change the system for the better, I knew there was nothing to be done and I needed to find a working environment which was positive and would not lead to the almost daily feelings of rage in my chest as once again a friend was humiliated / harassed / assaulted. When my boss asked why I was leaving and why I didn’t feel loyal I simply looked him in the eye and told him that I refused to have loyalty to a firm that covered up sexual harassment. He looked genuinely surprised.
I left a while ago now and was disappointed to learn that my mentor has been describing me as ‘naïve’ to my colleagues, and that whilst he understood that I was upset by the sexual assault of one associate in particular, I needed to understand that this sort of thing happens everywhere and at every firm. Thankfully, peers of mine who similarly looked up to him have since resigned as well.
Is he right? The MeToo movement has only highlighted what so many of us knew already that there is endemic sexism and sexual harassment in our society. Such behaviour thrives best when there are clear hierarchical power structures in place dominated by a narrow sector of society (in my previous firm’s case almost all London partners were straight, white, British men) which are difficult to challenge, making law firms rife for such behaviour. It is no surprise that some of the most prolific perpetrators had very successful books of business. Yet I refuse to believe that this is how it must be. Instead of accepting the status quo, we need people in senior positions to do better and question the seemingly established fact that a certain amount of sexual harassment is to be expected and endured. Have we forgotten that we are lawyers? Now in the commercial City firms, we are a long way from the idealistic law students who just wanted to help people and make the world a better place. We do this job for a number of reasons but money is likely to feature highly. Yet have we really lost sight of the fact that a lot of the behaviour which has been reported on, that many of us have witnessed, is actually criminal? There are not shades of grey when it comes to non-consensual sexual contact. It’s not the 70s anymore and I see no reason why we should pretend it’s acceptable.
I have only been at my new firm a couple of months and am definitely still partially blinded by a revived enthusiasm to learn and impress. However, I am not completely tricked by rose-tinted glasses and I am already aware of some of the flaws. The partners can be unresponsive; the clients too demanding; and the IT could do with an upgrade or two. It is, after all, a law firm. These are things that I can accept or adapt my working styles to deal with. So far, there is a completely different atmosphere. There is no ‘laddiness’; no bad jokes which leave employees red faced; and (to date) no evidence of harassment. I do not know the reason for this. Maybe it is the fact that my new team has 50% female partners and over 50% female senior associates and associates. Maybe it’s the firm’s HR partner’s commitment to speaking out against harassment at internal and industry events keeping the issue at the top of people’s minds. Who knows the reason, all I know is that in my first week here I saw something that I had never witnessed in my professional career. A female partner addressed our department on a legal issue (nothing to do with gender!) and every single person sat and listened and engaged and treated her with respect. It took me a while to realise that the unusual feeling I felt was that I was witnessing something I had never seen before.
Will this perception last? I hope so. All I know is that I do not leave each day with a burning sense of injustice. I have not found anyone crying in the bathrooms. There is no one I’m not comfortable going to ask a work question. I have not witnessed any crimes taking place. Lucky me. Could it be that I have found the mythical law firm where sexual harassment is not the norm?
I will never consider my old mentor in the same way. However, hopefully I have found a place where new mentors will be easy to come by and I won’t be groped in my search for a new one.
My advice to you if you find yourself nodding along to my description of my previous firm is this: you cannot change something that is rotten to the core. It is laudable to try but a time comes when you need to vote with your feet; this is why I joined the exodus of associates fleeing my previous firm. Whilst nowhere is perfect, there are better places out there and you do not need to stand for sexual harassment in the workplace. I believe that law firms free from endemic sexual harassment exist and, if you’re lucky, a move to one of them might even come with a decent pay bump.