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Bullying Endemic in the Legal Profession Says IBA Survey

sexual harassment in law office

A major survey from the International Bar Association, the London-based body that has a global membership, has found that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession.

The IBA survey covers almost 7000 lawyers across 135 countries and is the largest such survey undertaken on the issue, covering the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America and Africa.

The survey of almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries was carried out by the International Bar Association, the London-based umbrella body which brings together the legal profession around the world.

The report shows that sexual harassment and bullying are endemic within the legal profession.

It also showed that under reporting of the issues was equally serious.

In 75.4 per cent of cases in the survey the target did not report the incident. Sexual harassment was reported sometimes by 13.6 per cent of respondents, and on all occasions by 7.3 per cent.

Key Findings

Among the key findings in the report –

The findings include:

  • One in two women and one in three men have experienced bullying in the workplace;
  • One in three women and one in 14 male respondents have been sexually harassed;
  • Bullying cases, incidents were not reported in 57 per cent of cases, rising to 75 per cent for episodes of sexual harassment;
  • Sixty five per cent of lawyers who have been bullied have left or considered leaving their workplace as a result.
  • Workplaces are not doing enough to prevent or adequately respond to misconduct, with policies regarding bullying and sexual harassment present in only 53 per cent of workplaces;
  • Only one in five law workplaces have conducted training in recognising and reporting problems in these areas.

Where it Happens

Seventy three per cent of respondents worked in law firms, with 9% in corporation/organisations, 6% in barristers’ chambers, 5% in government and 3% in the judiciary.

Government workplaces had the highest average prevalence of sexual harassment on a gender-weighted basis, with 35 per cent of the respondents reporting harassment. Law firms had the lowest rate at 20 per cent, with the others being Judicial workplaces (23 per cent), in-house offices (26 per cent) and barristers’ chambers (28 per cent).

Legal professionals in Oceania, being Australia and New Zealand, experienced the highest prevalence of sexual harassment, at 30 per cent on a gender-weighted basis. Oceania was followed by Africa (28 per cent) and North America (28 per cent).

Sexual harassment disproportionately impacts younger members of the profession, with 29.4% of female respondents under the age of 30 having experienced sexual harassment within the past year. Within law firms, on a gender-weighted basis, 16 per cent of trainees, 20 per cent of solicitors/associates, 22 per cent of senior associates/senior solicitors and 23 per cent of partners had been sexually harassed.

The Harassment ‘Type’

The most common form of sexual harassment involved sexist, sexual and sexually suggestive comments.

Also common were inappropriate physical contact and sexual propositions, which involved 22 per cent of those who had been sexually harassed and who had been fondled, kissed or groped, while 3 per cent had been sexually assaulted.

Of respondents who had been sexually harassed, 84 per cent said they had been harassed on more than one occasion. 

UK Above Average

The survey found that levels of bullying in the UK are above the international average with 62 per cent of female respondents and 41per cent of male respondents reporting that they had been bullied.

The international averages were 55 per cent and 30 per cent respectively in connection with their employment.

A British woman lawyer:
“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 was not prepared to ruin his future over this.”

The frequency of sexual harassment in the UK is closer to the global average, with 38% of female and 6% of male respondents reporting they had been affected. Internationally, 37% of female respondents and 7% of male respondents had experienced sexual harassment during their career.

Bullying Endemic in the Legal Profession Says IBA Survey 3

Horacio Bernardes Neto, (right) the IBA president, said the study provided the first global proof that “bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession”.

“Following the global #MeToo movement, the legal profession has regularly been called upon to advise other sectors on these issues. Our ability to advise effectively and drive broader societal change is undermined if we do not address the risk of hypocrisy,” he said.

“If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character. Addressing the widespread bullying and sexual harassment among us is an important step in safeguarding the long-term vitality of this essential profession.”

A woman lawyer –
“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.”

The survey comes after a 2017 report by the Bar Council of England and Wales which found 21 per cent of employed and 12 per cent of self-employed respondent barristers had been bullied or harassed at work in the two years prior to the survey.

Australia & New Zealand Higher

More than 60 per cent of Australian respondents in the harassment survey reported that they had been bullied at work, compared with 51 per cent in the UK, 50.3 per cent in the US and 43 per cent globally. 30 per cent of those respondents in Australia reported having been harassed.


Woman lawyer, US –
“I often received comments from my supervisor that she wanted to ‘f*ck me’. Any conversation would seem to have a sexual reference in it.”

Although New Zealand figures had not been broken out in the survey, the country has already been rocked by a sexual harassment scandal and the widely reported Workplace Environment Survey which found that nearly one third of female lawyers had been sexually harassed in their working life.

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