News that US firm Shearman & Sterling sacked a London associate after he allegedly sexually harassed a vacation student in a West End strip club (TheLawyer.com, 4 August) sparked a heated debate among readers.
Some commenters lauded the vacation student for following her complaint through, while others felt she was exceptionally naive in her actions. For some readers, Shearman’s reaction was entirely proportionate, while others felt that sacking the associate in question had been an exceptionally harsh punishment for something that goes on in the City all the time.
From the views aired it seems that the boundaries between drunken behaviour and sexual harassment remain unclear. The fact that employment law and employer’s liability have changed rapidly in recent years adds to the confusion. This has been highlighted in the Shearman case. While the vacation student and the associate went to the strip club together, the student felt the firm should bear some responsibility for his behaviour because the evening began with firm-organised drinks that were attended by at least one partner.
A City employment partner says: “It’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between a work event and a social event, but from an employment law perspective the scope of an employer’s responsibility is potentially very wide, so that in my view it was entirely appropriate for follow-up action from the partnership.”
Shearman has apologised to the student after conducting an internal investigation that resulted in the sacking of the associate – but the firm denies liability for the alleged harassment.
In a letter to the vacation student dated 1 August, the firm wrote: “Although we accept that the conduct displayed by the associate in taking you to The Windmill Club was deeply inappropriate, it was not a Shearman & Sterlingorganised event and we therefore accept no liability for what may have occurred.”
The vacation student claims she had a “horrific” experience at Shearman and that the firm’s culture accepted the retention of some technically good lawyers despite their inappropriate behaviour. However, a former Shearman partner points out that the firm is not unusual in this respect, saying: “Shearman wasn’t any different from any other firm. Yes, you always have macho people around, but I don’t think Shearman was an overly macho place.”
Shearman took steps towards eradicating this kind of macho culture when in 2006 the New York office set up the Women’s Initiative for Success, Excellence and Retention (Wiser), which is in the process of being rolled out to other global offices. The London Wiser initiative is due to hit London in September and is being coordinated by London M&A partner Lois Moore, who joined from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringerin January 2007.
The firm says the scheme’s aim is to enhance its “commitment to hiring, retaining, developing and promoting women attorneys at the firm”, to “foster effective communication” among women lawyers and to facilitate career-enhancing opportunities.
At the moment 41 per cent of lawyers at Shearman’s London office are women, but only 12 per cent are London partners. Globally, women make up 16 per cent of Shearman’s partnership, which compares favourably to the magic circle, where globally women make up only around 14 per cent of partners.
The firm says that no internal changes are going to be made as a result of the alleged sexual harrassment. A spokesperson for the firm says: “This is a very unfortunate incident, albeit an isolated one, and we’ve addressed it swiftly and appropriately. We have robust procedures in place and do not visualise the need for any change.”
It is clear that the firm has done almost all it can to publicly distance itself from the associate and his behaviour. It has repeatedly stated that the event occurred during an informal event that was not organised by the firm and has also claimed that the credit card the associate used to pay the entrance fee at the strip club was not a corporate card, but a private one externally branded with the firm’s logo.