Bullying and sexual harassment "are endemic in the legal profession", according to a report by the International Bar Association.

In the UK, an astonishing two thirds of female respondents to the IBA's global survey said they had been bullied, along with two fifths of the male respondents.

Globally, 60% of respondents said their supervisor was the bully, 7% said the bully was more junior than them, and 5% said the bully was a client.

"It is not surprising that bullying and sexual harassment are widespread in the profession", said the IBA, noting that problematic characteristics described "many, if not most legal workplaces". They included male-dominated leaderships, hierarchical power structures, lower-level employees depending on superiors for advancement, and power concentrated in a single person.

The risk of bullying and sexual harassment in law was exacerbated by the pressure of billable hours and adversarial work, said the IBA, which warned, "The legal profession has a problem".


Your firm?

Bullying occurred in different ways across different workplaces and the sexes. Female respondents were more likely to report having too much or too little work, while respondents working for governments were more likely to report being excluded or victimised. In barristers' chambers, "ridicule or demeaning language" was more common than average. 

Noting that over half of victims said they never reported the problem, often due to the profile of the perpetrator and the fear of repercussions, the IBA said "chronic underreporting" and employers' "insufficient or negligible" responses proved legal workplaces were "not doing enough".

Comments were received from around the world:

"I was told by the senior partner at a top tier firm that despite my work performance, the firm would not keep me on because I am a lesbian." (Female, in-house, Canada) 

"I felt sick every day I went to work under this manager. He would have fits of rage – screaming  at me, violently kicking filing cabinets while I cowered in the corner of my tiny office. I was frightened  of him in those moments. He would go to lunch with the rest of the office and I was never invited." (Female, law firm, Australia)

"As a man being bullied by a woman in the workplace, I felt – in addition to angry and hurt – absurd. I believed, correctly, that no one would take my complaints seriously." (Male, in-house, Canada)

"I was advised by the (female) practice manager that if I showed a sexual interest in my principal, he would be nicer to me. This was after he had thrown a phone at my head." (Female, law firm, UK) 

"I have not seen anything even close to bullying or sexual harassment in my country in the legal industry or business." (Male, law firm, Russia) 

Sexual harassment was also "alarmingly commonplace in the legal profession", claimed the IBA. In the UK, a third of female respondents and one in 17 male respondents said they had been sexually harassed. Before carrying out a blanket castration of the country's male partners, however, it's worth noting that just 715 people in the UK responded to the IBA's survey, which equates to less than 0.5%, of the UK's 145,000 practising solicitors. Some of the comments they received from the 7,000 lawyers who did respond from around the world were pretty grim, though:

"One of the senior partners offered to help me get a training contract, if I went to casinos with him and agreed to ‘get to know him better’." (Female, law firm)

"Once, the managing partner left me alone with a senior lawyer the firm was courting, who ran his hands up my legs and tried to kiss me. I bumped into the managing partner as I was running from the restaurant, and he suggested I should consider a relationship with this man." (Female, law firm, Canada)

"A client said I must see the view he had from his hotel room and after initially saying no I eventually popped into his room ‘just for a moment’. He then lunged. I moved away quickly and nothing terrible happened. I felt like an idiot. I thought his interest in me was professional. I felt horribly uncomfortable the next day in his team. I was worried it had ruined my career." (Female, law firm, UK) 

"I often received comments from my supervisor that she wanted to ‘fuck me’. Any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it." (Male, barristers’ chambers, UK)

Three quarters of the respondents who said they were victims of sexual harassment never reported it, and of those who did, three quarters said no sanction was imposed. 

"The male bosses take advantage of young, temporary female employees, in need of work, and without professional experience, by demanding sexual favours in exchange for employment. You cannot report, or they do not renew your position." (Female, government, Costa Rica)

"I didn’t report because who believes that a man says no to sex?" (Male, law firm, Sweden)

"A fellow trainee solicitor groped me during a social event. He was drunk and had, up until that point, been someone I considered a friend. I thought about reporting him, but realised that there was a serious chance he would never qualify as a solicitor if I did. I told him that if I ever heard of or witnessed any inappropriate behaviour on his part, I would go to HR. I am still not entirely sure that I did the right thing, but I knew how hard everyone had worked to get to the point we were at. I was not prepared to ruin his future over this." (Female, law firm, UK) 

"The partners closed ranks around the perpetrator [of seriously inappropriate physical contact]. The firm did nothing to sanction him and later promoted him into a more senior, but marginally less public position. They offered me no support or reassurances about my career. I felt I had no choice but to leave." (Female, law firm, UK)

"After requesting that a sexual harassment policy be implemented, I experienced a huge backlash. There was an immediate increase in sexist comments, jokes and derogatory comments personally directed at me." (Female, advocate, South Africa)

"My experience is that it does not matter whether there is a policy in place or not. If the individual is high achieving and productive, then management will not sanction or discipline that individual." (Female, government, Canada)

Advocating for better training and policies, more data collection and greater engagement with staff, Horacio Bernardes Neto, the President of the IBA, said the profession "must confront" these "insidious issues".

"I implore the legal profession to heed this report’s recommendations", he said. "If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character". 

Tip Off ROF


Anon 17 May 19 09:01

I was attacked by a partner of a national firm, we were both at a client do and had been drinking.  it stopped short of rape only because he was so drunk.  I reported it to HR and I was given training on how to handle him better and nothing was ever said to him.  I left.

Anonymous 17 May 19 09:11

No evidence to substantiate these claims, and no indication if most of them were investigated, and if so, what the outcome was. In many ways a wasted opportunity.

Anonymous 17 May 19 09:17

""I have not seen anything even close to bullying or sexual harassment in my country in the legal industry or business." (Male, law firm, Russia)"   Three words then, male, law firm, Russia: Sergei Leonidovich Magnitsky.

Debbie 17 May 19 09:27

I was put through a bogus disciplinary (got a slap on my wrist to save face) which completely soured my love of the job I had been doing and resulted in my leaving the firm.  The Partner who instigated the disciplinary told me that if I took a £4k pay cut, he would "make it go away" and HR just rolled their eyes when I told them.  Happens all over and they get away with it because people either want to keep their job or the just leave and hope that it does not happen in the next place. 

Anonymous 17 May 19 09:31

Yes, I think anyone who works in PP will recognise this as being extremely commonplace. A client once made sexually suggestive remarks made to me in front of a partner, but hey, they pay the bills, so I knew better than to expect him to be called out on it. Flies under the radar aaalll the time 

Arachnae 17 May 19 09:41

Bullying was endemic at the West End firm where I used to work, particularly if you were the "wrong" religion/ethnicity. If you were bullied by a client, you were the one likely to get into trouble, since "the customer is always right". I was certainly bullied myself. I speak as a former salaried partner. My husband, also a lawyer, wanted me to report them to the SRA, but it was so much easier just to leave.

Anon 17 May 19 09:49

Slightly differently, as a gay lawyer at a large firm, I've experienced prejudice and harassment perhaps because I am not a straight married man with 2.4 children who chats sport. Rather than take the lead in promoting inclusivity and bringing all parts of the team in, I've seen and experienced partners actively discriminate based on what they perceive to be the "whims" / prejudices of a client. It would be nice to focus on the work instead. 

Sick of PP 17 May 19 09:58

There’s a strong link between poor management and control, poor culture, bullying, and sexual harassment. The problem and the solution starts from the top.

Ogre 17 May 19 11:06

"I often received comments from my supervisor that she wanted to ‘fuck me’. Any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it." (Male, barristers’ chambers, UK)

Where do I sign up?

Anon 17 May 19 11:33

As an aspiring trainee undergoing an assessment day at a City firm back in 2008, I was told that the firm could never put "someone like me" in front of their clients.  Naturally, I wasn't offered a training contract.  I'm now a senior associate at another City firm and doing well - I am frequently put in front of clients and, as expected, so far none of them have reacted in horror to me. 

If I could remember the name of the lady who told me that - who I think was either their head of recruitment or else the partner in charge of recruitment - I would be inclined to email her to let her know how harmful that comment was to me.

anon 17 May 19 12:45

I was bullied as a trainee at a top 10 UK firm. The feeling of desperation was crippling. I was at the start of my career that I had worked hard for and found the reality thoroughly depressing. I will never forget the way the partner and senior associate I sat with made me feel. Even more depressing than their behaviour was the fact that it was well known at the firm that I was being bullied, but they did nothing about it. Until bullying is seen as bullying and not a rite of passage nothing will change.  

Anonymous 17 May 19 13:03

Agrees anon @12.45, its ingrained in the culture at a lot of places. There should be a specific law against bullying in general, not just relating to a protected characteristic.

Anonymous 17 May 19 13:19

@9:01 - I'd report that sort if allegation to the police. There's no way I'd trust HR to investigate something like that and be fair to either side.

defk 17 May 19 16:10

When I was younger a client pinched my bottom at a firm event. She represented a large retail plc, and I was merely a junior lawyer. What's more, being male, I was basically laughed at when it was brought up later. 

Anonymous 17 May 19 21:58

True, Sick of PP, and the poor management and control also breeds  the type of toxic atmosphere which leads to bullying and sexual harassment by way of false accusations. Its the structure of firms which needs to change as the way they're designed brings out the worst in people.

Anonymous 18 May 19 12:33

I once overheard one senior partner advising another more junior partner about a great member of his "team" to "run her into the ground until she goes off sick and then we'll just tell people she wasn't up to the job". And that is exactly what happened. Shocking to witness. I left.

Anon 20 May 19 09:03

defk 17 May 19 16:10.... you do realise how criminal justice works in this country don't you??.... it would have been my word against his, we had both been drinking, there is no way this would ever have made the courts let alone resulted in any action.  no one would have believed me.  It still happened

Panful to read 20 May 19 11:25

It’s pretty awful reading all this (article and comments) in an industry that many of us know and love.  Law firms have so much more to do on this front, but I fear that a partnership model intrinsically breeds this kind of unhealthy power dynamic in firms. 


Can I just mention though that I worked at a very large and influential law firm until last year, the leadership there had two instances of very senior people who had acted completely inappropriately towards female co-workers, and the CEO got rid of both of them within a matter of weeks.  I wasn’t senior enough to be privy to these conversations, but my boss at the time (who was very senior) suggested to me that the CEO moved heaven and earth to get them out as he suggested that there was no place for men like that in the business.  I’d say that one of the offending partners was absolutely business critical, and almost impossible to replace, and so was both a brave and correct decision on the part of the CEO.


I’m not for one second suggesting that this isn’t a major problem for our industry (it clearly is), but there are people trying to do the right thing and weed out this bad behaviour.  What’s important is that we reinforce good behaviours, support people in leadership who have to make tough decisions (even if it hits us in the pocket), and all work towards an industry where people don’t feel objectified or as tools of gratification for unscrupulous individuals.   

Anonymous 20 May 19 13:10

@Panful to read - don't worry, its not nearly as bad as you think. This survey contains a lot of accusations which aren't true. The reality is that sexual harassment does happen, is far less common than the survey suggests.

Anonymous 20 May 19 13:59

Complaints like yours can only be looked at by the police, anon @9.03. HR simply don't have the ability to look at such claims and be fair to either side. That isn't affected by Defk's claim.

Anonymous 20 May 19 17:36

I agree Debbie. Law firms use bogus disciplinaries, implemented by HR on behalf of male partners with unyielding egos, to silence valid complaints of discrimination, bullying and harassment. Paradoxically it is those law firms, trying desperately to appear as though they are promoting inclusivity and safe work spaces, who are the worst offenders. They seek dubious awards from unrecognised organisations without real efforts to address their toxic culture, whilst their employees continue to be treated disgracefully. Wouldn't it just be easier just to cultivate a nicer working environment? 

Anonymous 21 May 19 14:48

"Advocating for better training and policies, more data collection and greater engagement with staff, Horacio Bernardes Neto, the President of the IBA, said the profession "must confront" these "insidious issues"."


I don't think better training or policies solves these issues.  Will it come as a surprise to anyone that sexual misconduct/assault is wrong?  The only solution is to encourage an environment where people feel able to report incidents and then to investigate each report on its merits.

Anonymous 21 May 19 16:02

Agreed, May 19th 17:36, HR are often guilty of sexual harassment by misuse of disciplinary procedures, on behalf of male partners and also female members of staff making false accusations. HR needs to be properly regulated to stop this and the courts need to be more willing to call out their lies.

Anonymous 22 May 19 18:08

I wanted to stab my bullying manager in the face and push through the window, the feeling was getting stronger each day. So I went to the doctors, they signed me off. It still took HR nearly 3 years to investigate her behaviour against me and others in the team. 

Anonymous 22 May 19 20:06

Agreed, anonymous 21st May @14:48, each report should be fairly investigated on its merits, as long as the accused feel able to speak up too, and the people investigated aren't frightened to call out situations where the accusation itself is sexual misconduct. Allegations of sexual assault should be a police matter, HR don't have the expertise to deal with these.

Anonynous 23 May 19 13:28

I have seen it first hand, not just in law firms, in functions and in the whole industry of LAW. Having worked at a major international recruitment firm, I was one of the few people that lawyers went to with their stories for leaving, I would say 60% of the reasons behind the reasons, were sexual harassment. From Partners exposing themselves to juniors to various other activities. The industry is filled with stories that would make any soap opera seem "soft"..  I left the 'international corporate industry" - due to a Managing Director -  bullying and outright sexually harassing one of my junior members, bringing her to tears - so much so that she felt she had to call me at midnight ... All while I was on sick leave. 

Upon my return, a confrontation occurred where the aforementioned Managing Director ( 6 foot 6 Harvey Weinstein look a like with glassed ) was show the 'ghetto' background, and told in a very short fashion - " back off or learn to fly, as you will go through the window"..... I got away with it as the highest performer in the company..... In the end, the culture is toxic in most corporate environments, I left because I saw no change, funny when I left they collapsed. 

In a law firm, no one individual will make the difference, but as a collective there is bargaining power. These stories of "harassment" and bullying exist, and are true.. I have seen it, heard it , and been involved in some weird situations, including one at the Legal Business Awards... 

Something tells me I should write a book on the industry

Anonymous 23 May 19 18:03

Did you report any of these cases 13:28, or do you know if any were reported? Were you reported for throwing someone through the window?

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