sexual harassment

Why Junior Lawyers Are at the Heart of Law's Bullying and Harassment Problems

From casual racism to sexual harassment and working without bathroom breaks—New Zealand's law firms won't solve their issues until they fix things for young lawyers.
May 31, 2018, 11:37pm
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Mere months after allegations of widespread sexual misconduct were levelled at major law firm Russell McVeagh, the legal profession has once again been rocked by the results of a Colmar Brunton survey, released this week, about the working conditions of New Zealand lawyers. The responses from 3,516 lawyers revealed that sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are rife in the industry—a situation concerning enough to prompt Law Society President Kathryn Beck to declare “a serious and systemic cultural problem in [the] profession”. The survey found that nearly one third of female lawyers have been sexually harassed during their working life, more than half of respondents have been bullied, and that certain factors, such as being female and/or Māori, Pacific and Asian, have a compounding effect on the levels of harassment a lawyer can expect to face.

But one of the factors that is receiving comparatively little media attention is age. The results of the survey make it clear that being a young lawyer—under 30—makes life more difficult in legal workplaces: prevalence of sexual harassment is higher than average among young lawyers, both male and female; young lawyers have lower levels of job satisfaction and are less likely than average to feel that their stress is appropriately managed; and rates of bullying are higher among young lawyers. A full third of the surveyed lawyers perceived age as a driver of bullying behaviour. Some 40 percent of those under 30 feel major changes are needed to their workplace culture, compared to only 31 percent of 30 to 49-year-olds, and 21 percent of those over 50. Rates of sexual harassment occurring in the last five years among young female lawyers clocks in at a whopping 55 percent. For lawyers who’ve been in the profession 3-5 years, the rate is 58 percent.

For young people beginning their careers in the profession, these results will come as no surprise. As any intern or new grad quickly realises, law firms are intensely hierarchical places, and young lawyers are at the bottom of the food chain: powerless, overworked, and often desperate to advance up the career ladder. Junior lawyers answer to those in more senior positions, which essentially includes everyone except the support staff: more senior barristers and solicitors, associates and partners all feed work to the juniors, and there’s an expectation that they’ll suck it up and do it, regardless of how much they have on their plates.

"The constant pressure to perform, and be profitable, can be dehumanising.

“There's a definite pressure to accept work when starting out as a junior lawyer,” Michael*, a 30-year-old lawyer who previously worked at large firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts, told VICE. “A delegating partner is likely to be surprised if you turn work away, irrespective of whether you're already at full capacity. As time goes on, you learn that it's okay to push back and not accept further work when you're under the pump, but I don't know that it would be okay to do that when you're just starting out.” Being busy, and appearing busy, is crucial in a large firm environment. “A junior colleague once confided to me that, for his first 12 months as a grad, he would only go to the bathroom at lunchtime to avoid being seen to be ‘lazy’ at work,” Michael added.

The constant pressure to perform, and be profitable, can be dehumanising. International research shows that lawyers have higher rates than other professionals of illnesses like heart disease, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and the Colmar Brunton survey revealed that 68 percent of lawyers regularly work extended hours. VICE spoke to Lawrence, 29, who has worked for large law firms in Auckland and overseas, about the relentless expectations in the industry. He spoke of being pulled aside by a partner who questioned his work ethic and commitment to the firm after a slight slump in his output, which was due to an ongoing health issue—he recently had surgery for sleep apnea. “The assumption was that I wasn’t as committed to the firm as I used to be, or working as hard, when in fact my performance issues were all related to my health problems,” he said. “They take a narrow view of what the problem is, and it can be really demoralising.” Young lawyers report being treated like profit-making machines first, and humans second. “We’re fee earners,” Lawrence explained. “That’s fundamentally what it comes down to.”

Being a young lawyer can also worsen the experience of harassment, bullying and discrimination in the workplace. Lucy, a 28-year-old lawyer, spoke to VICE about feeling powerless to challenge sexism and racism in the workplace due to her comparatively junior position in the company. “We had a director who would fish out whether female candidates in job interviews were planning on getting pregnant in the near future, and then after they’d answered, say, ‘Whoops, you’re not supposed to talk about these things anymore, are you?’, like it was all a big joke,” she said. “After we hired a Korean junior, the same director ‘joked’ about how we should hire more Asians, because they’re ‘submissive and hard working’. It was like that day in and day out. You just sit there and take it, because this is the person who controls your income and decides whether you should be promoted or not. You’re not going to call them on it, because it’s not a level playing field.” Lawrence, a Chinese New Zealander, also described experiencing an ambient level of background racism in the profession that he said has become normal to him.

Law is already an intensely pressured, competitive, hierarchical and male-dominated industry. Add the compounding factor of youth to the mix, and you have a recipe for unreported bullying, overworked, fearful juniors and unchecked harassment.

Across a range of topics, the Colmar Brunton survey revealed that various axes of disempowerment—most commonly, gender, age and race—combine to produce increasingly hostile experiences in the legal workplace. The survey concluded with an invitation for respondents to share any final comments they’d like to make, in an open-ended format. Two percent of the respondents made an observation to the following effect: “We're losing good lawyers, young people and women from the profession.” Hostile workplaces cause talent to bleed, and the Law Society is just now becoming aware of the challenge on its hands to prevent further hemorrhaging.

In a letter to members of the profession following the publication of the survey, Law Society President Kathryn Beck has promised change. “I’m committed to [the organisation] providing the cultural leadership that we have not provided to date,” she said. “I’m committed to tackling these issues head on and directly.” A taskforce to drive cultural and systemic change in the industry is currently being established. Given what the survey has revealed about the relationship between age and sexual harassment and bullying, the taskforce needs representation by young lawyers if it hopes to solve the problems faced by the most vulnerable members of the industry.

Law is already an intensely pressured, competitive, hierarchical and male-dominated industry. Add the compounding factor of youth to the mix, and you have a recipe for unreported bullying, overworked, fearful juniors and unchecked harassment. Solving law's broader culture and sexual misconduct problems requires acknowledging that certain groups of lawyers are especially vulnerable, and it's clear now that protective measures for young lawyers in particular are sorely overdue.

*Michael’s name has been changed by request, as have the names of all other sources for this story.