The start of 1997 has not been good for personnel managers at law firms. First came the Freshfields trainee, Katherine Cawthorn, suing her firm for loss of career and claiming sex discrimination in the way she was treated on a business trip to Africa.
Then there were details in the national press of young solicitor Sheena Khan's allegations of sexual discrimination by her senior partner, Robert Broudie, of Liverpool firm RM Broudie & Co.
Finally there is the news, revealed in this week's issue of The Lawyer, that shipping firm Sinclair Roche & Temperley is facing allegations of sexual discrimination from two former employees. All the claims are being denied by the law firms involved.
A survey released this week, however, shows that sexual discrimination and harassment is widespread among law firms.
Stuart Robinson, of legal recruitment consultancy Reynell, which commissioned the report, believes it shows that law firms are lagging behind other professions in implementing complaints procedures and training to avoid the worst cases of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.
He warns: “Unless firms can find a way to make their assistant solicitors – in particular their female assistant solicitors – feel more valued, we could see a drain of young talent to banks, accountancy firms and other industries.”
Makbool Javaid, principal legal officer at the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), says he is not surprised at the recent cases involving law firms, or the results of the survey. “There is an arrogance in law firms,” he says. “Because they are dealing with the law they think that they know it all. Solicitors have been working for firms for many years without even having a contract of employment. The kind of practice and procedures that are standard in other parts of industry are rare when it comes to the legal profession.”
His statement is backed up by anecdotal evidence. The Lawyer has heard that one prestigious West End firm is allegedly breaking the law by having no written terms and conditions for its employees. It is claimed that redundant staff are “frog-marched” out the door by the senior partner.
At another firm, it is claimed a legal secretary was sacked after taking time off for a hysterectomy. One woman came back after maternity leave to find someone else at her desk – her clients were being handled by another solicitor.
More common, says employment lawyer Gillian Howard, who is acting for Freshfields trainee Katherine Cawthorn, is the mother returning from maternity leave having to leave work at 4.30pm and finding the other staff looking at their watch and saying “part-timer, are we?”
Then there are the women who find they are no longer taken to meet important clients and their interesting work drops away even before they become pregnant because the partnership assumes they are about to have children.
“This has happened to women who cannot have children,” says Alison Parkinson, chair of the Association of Women Solicitors. “One said to me, 'Why should I have to tell my firm that I cannot have children?'”
Very few young solicitors being harassed or discriminated against are prepared to take legal action. “Once it is in the public domain,” says Parkinson, “employers just think you are a troublemaker. If you work in a small town, you may never work there again.”
Those brave enough to go to court or a tribunal are often resisted by their firm right up until a few days before the hearing is scheduled.
“The last-minute tactic is what the litigation department advises,” says Howard. “Pile on the pressure right up until the last moment. It is pretty ruthless and if someone is unemployed, the pressure can be great.”
Generally, just before the hearing, when the complainant is nervous, firms come up with a settlement that includes a gagging clause. “I've known firms to pay double the maximum they would have to pay in the tribunal [£11,000 for unfair dismissal] as they do not want publicity,” says Georgina Keane, head of employment at Richards Butler, who has acted for around a dozen lawyers in unfair dismissal and related cases.
It is not only young women solicitors who suffer in today's high-pressure law firms. One assistant solicitor who won her case of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination says: “I actually felt sorry for some of the men in my firm. Although women are more at the receiving end of this sort of treatment, men do suffer from bullying as well, and they do not have the remedy of sex discrimination.”
That remedy has become particularly effective since a European Court of Justice ruling in 1993 removed the limit on damage payments for sexual and racial discrimination.
And the victims are becoming more aware of their rights. Parkinson says: “When we started our helpline in 1990 we were getting a lot of calls from women solicitors who had run into problems. Now they are ringing, not because they have been made redundant or are pregnant, but because they want to know what their rights are.”
The Young Solicitors Group, which also runs a helpline, was contacted by more than 300 people last year with problems they felt unable to discuss with partners in their own firm.
Chair Paul Verlander says: “The general message we get from the calls is that law firms are appalling in the way that they deal with members of staff. Redundancy with no notice and no reasons given is a common one. You really would not expect it of law firms.”
It must be said that not all employment lawyers agree that law firms lag behind. “One or two firms are probably pretty bad,” says Barry Mordsley, employment partner at Harris Rosenblatt & Kramer, “but I do not think they are any worse than other companies.”
So what can partners do to improve matters? For a start, says Gillian Howard, they could implement the Equal Opportunities Commission's code of practice, without which, the European Court of Justice ruled in 1991, employers can be held liable in discrimination cases.
They should not only have an equal opportunities policy but a complaints procedure for sexual and racial harassment, and training for senior staff in how to recognise and deal with these matters.
Most of the top 10 firms we approached claimed to have introduced both the policy and a complaints procedure. Several had revised their procedures to take account specifically of racial and sexual discrimination issues in the past two years.
Lovell White Durrant says its maternity policy is currently under review. Simmons & Simmons personnel director Anita Tovell says her firm has just introduced a strengthened equal opportunities policy after consultation with partners from each group in the firm.
Few firms we asked, however, had in place a formal training programme for partners to recognise and deal with racial or sexual harassment.
Introducing procedures is the first step, but lawyers' groups point out that the only long-term solution is a change of attitude.
Once that happens, the embarrassing headlines should disappear.
Assistant solicitors have a high regard for the standards and reputation of their firm but one in four young women assistants have suffered sexual harassment and more than half suffered sexual discrimination in their career while women are twice as likely to suffer from workplace bullying than men.
These are some of the results of a survey of 250 assistant solicitor respondents from 20 firms, mainly in the London area, conducted by Reynell Legal Recruitment.
On the positive side, 86 per cent of those surveyed considered professional standards were high in their firm and 82 per cent believed their firm had a good reputation. But many thought the “long hours culture” was dangerous.
Nearly 50 per cent said they felt vulnerable if they were not seen to work the same hours as their colleagues. And two out of three assistants could not say they had full confidence in the decisions made by partners.
This is probably the result of a lack of communication, made plain from the responses to other questions. A third of respondents were not sure what their firm's growth record was and a third again were not sure how profitable their firm was. Only one third said they received regular feedback on their individual performance.
Women assistants feel far less happy with their lot than men. They are twice as likely to suffer from workplace bullying and a third of women and a quarter of men feel they are not listened to. A quarter of men and a third of women feel that opportunities for promotion are not equal for all fee earners.
Nearly one in four women feel they that do not have sufficient opportunity for client contact compared with only 12 per cent of men. Only 9 per cent of women felt staff morale was high while 23 per cent of men did.
The findings back up The Lawyer survey of the profession published in May 1996 which showed that two-thirds of lawyers think women are disadvantaged when considered for partnership, and one third of all respondents said they had been subjected to bullying in the workplace.