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The Alcohol & Harassment Culture of Big Law: Is Bottom Line Health More Important Than The Lawyers’ Wellbeing?

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If nothing else, the #Metoo movement has focused attention on sexual harassment in the legal profession at almost every level – including the UK’s recent enquiry that heard about the drink-fueled culture leading to a ‘surge’ in sexual misconduct.

The increase in complaints about law firm culture and the use of alcohol is nothing new, but there appear to be increased complaints due in part to #Metoo, but also the increased competition among firms, which includes providing alcohol to support the hard-work that generates their fee revenues.

But that has come at a cost to the firms now facing increased scrutiny over their work practices.

And the problem is exacerbated by the apparent fact that many firms are ignoring the issue – accepting that it is all part of the culture of being in a Big Law (it is Big Law drawing the brunt of the criticism by virtue of their size, power and money) law firm.

The evidence came from an anonymous witness reported by The Times and others before the select committee dealing with women and equalities.

A junior lawyer employed by one of the major ‘magic circle’ law firms in the City and giving evidence before the committee said:  “I was sexually assaulted by a partner of a magic circle law firm, whilst I was a junior lawyer in the same team. The assault was a serious breach of my privacy and caused significant harm to my mental health.”

As is frequently the case with sexual harassment cases, the firm involved handled things badly – a matter recently highlighted in New Zealand where an independent investigator looked at one of the country’s largest law firms, Russell McVeagh, filing a report with a raft of recommendations relating to the manner in which the firm should have handled the mismanaged complaints from summer interns who had been sexually assaulted.

The UK witness said the poor handling of the complaint she had made had significantly contributed to the distress she felt.

“Throughout my own experience of reporting an incident of sexual misconduct, it was clear that the firm was not prepared for, and lacking in the relevant expertise, to deal with a complaint of such a serious nature,” the witness said.

The firm involved was not named and an investigation is continuing.

But one of the key issues remains the handling of staff at law firms and the use of alcohol at work-related events.

“. .  there is a culture of excessive consumption of alcohol and where incidents of sexual misconduct are rife,” she said.

Worldwide Issue

Patrick Krill

Issues of alcohol abuse and sexual harassment, often related, are common in all jurisdictions.  In the US Patrick Krill, a behavioural health consultant, has spoken about the increase in workplace harassment when alcohol is involved, commenting in a recent column that “by introducing alcohol into the context of work-related events or gatherings, [law firms] are also introducing elements of unpredictability and volatility into their risk portfolio.”

And it appears also that the more women are sexually harassed at their firms, the more women who have been harassed will turn to alcohol.

not only do harassed individuals have to suffer that indignity itself, but they then could be victimized a second time by the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that the experience may prompt them to adopt.

Research demonstrates that experiences of sexual harassment are associated with increased frequency of drinking, escapist motivations for drinking, heavy episodic drinking, drinking to intoxication, and use of prescription drugs (such as sedatives, antidepressants) and cigarettes.

Moreover, ongoing sexual harassment is predictive of increased quantity of alcohol consumption by the harassed individual, a fact that is particularly problematic given that sexual harassment is often chronic in nature. Keep in mind, this is in addition to the psychological distress that numerous studies have linked to sexual harassment, including depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of self-esteem, and a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.

Krill says there need to be “sobering questions” asked by law firm leaders of their lawyers about drinking behaviours.

The question is the age-old issue facing lawyers – the conflict of interest.  Do they consider the well being of their lawyers and staff, or the health of their bottom line?

 

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