IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto
IBA president Horacio Bernardes Neto

The #MeToo movement has left no sector unaffected. From entertainment to hospitality, finance to media, allegations of workplace impropriety have swept the globe. Jobs were lost, careers ended and a clear message sent: the culture of impunity for misconduct can continue no longer.

Sexual harassment is inappropriate in any field. But it is particularly repugnant in the legal profession. Law is one of the very few sectors that requires, as a condition of entry and as an ongoing obligation, the highest ethical standards from its practitioners. This has been the case for over two millennia; Aristotle wrote that the orators of ancient Greece, forebears of the modern lawyer, needed to be of “good moral character”.

On Wednesday, the International Bar Association published a landmark 130-page report, Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession. Based on a global survey of almost 7,000 legal professionals from 135 countries, the largest of its kind, the report reveals widespread bullying and sexual harassment.

While prior research focused on such misconduct occurring in corporate law firms, the new report covers the entirety of the profession: private practice, specialist advocates, in-house counsel, government lawyers and the judiciary. Across each segment and in every region, the message was the same: inappropriate workplace behavior is rife.

One in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied at work. One in three female respondents and one in 14 male respondents had been sexually harassed at work.

Existing mechanisms for preventing and responding to such misconduct are not having the desired impact. Globally, reporting of incidents is rare, occurring in just one in four sexual harassment cases. Policies and training are insufficiently utilised: only half of respondents’ workplaces had relevant policies and just one in five ran training. Two-thirds of sexual harassment targets who did report indicated that their workplace’s response was insufficient or negligible, with perpetrators rarely sanctioned.

We must, individually and collectively, do better. There are ethical and legal imperatives for addressing this pervasive misconduct. Sexual harassment is prohibited by law in almost two-thirds of countries globally, while legislative efforts to address bullying are moving forward. As former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, herself once a lawyer, wrote in a foreword to the research: “This important report is a clarion call for urgent action.”

There is also a compelling business case: the survey found that targets of bullying and sexual harassment were leaving their workplaces, and in some cases the law entirely, at an alarming rate. The ongoing sustainability of the profession depends on providing safe and supportive workplaces for the next generation of lawyers. It is the legal profession that other sectors look to for counsel in addressing these issues in their own workplaces. If we do not get our own house in order, are we just hypocrites?

The report concludes: “Change is hard, but it is possible”. The International Bar Association has developed 10 recommendations, for individual workplaces, law societies, bar associations and legal regulators. We have also committed to taking concrete steps to support the implementation of the recommendations; we recognise that in order to talk the talk, we must walk the walk.

While the momentum generated by the #MeToo movements has filled many of us with optimism, we cannot be complacent. The legal profession has had #MeToo moments before. In 1983, a major American law firm drew public ire for holding a “swimsuit competition” for summer associates. In 1994, a legal secretary won a multimillion-dollar judgment against an international firm for the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of a supervisor. In the late 1990s, a young English lawyer was asked by her employer to accompany clients to a strip club.

After each of these headline-attracting incidents, elements of the profession committed to change. As far back as 1992, the American Bar Association formally recognised sexual harassment as a “serious problem” in legal workplaces. Almost three decades later, that problem persists.

I want to leave the last word to one of the thousands of legal professionals from across the globe who completed the survey and provided insightful, and at times harrowing, comments about their personal experiences. This research is dedicated to them.

In two sentences, a female lawyer from the United Arab Emirates aptly summarised our entire 35,000-word report. She said: “There should be absolutely no place in this profession, nor any other, for bullies or sexual harassers. At the very least, people deserve dignity and a safe, supportive environment in return for their work.”

Horacio Bernardes Neto is the president of the International Bar Association. He acknowledges the report’s author, Kieran Pender. The IBA this week published its report into the prevalence, nature and impact of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession, conducted in 2018.