Stories show harassment a problem in law firms

By David Donovan
BridgeTower Media Newswires
RALEIGH — As Rachel reflects back on the various instances during her legal career in which she’s experienced sexual harassment, she notices a theme. There was the law professor who made inappropriate comments to female students.

The night, while she was still in law school, that a partner at a big law firm showed up at her hotel room door after she’d interviewed for a job at the firm. The prominent attorney who grabbed her inappropriately at a reception event.

“I thought it was interesting that all of them were people in power over me, or thought they were,” Rachel said. “They had an attitude of nonchalance and that I can do this and I’m entitled to do this. An attorney much more senior than me was taking advantage of their position.”

Like all of the legal professionals who spoke to Lawyers Weekly about their experiences with sexual harassment, “Rachel” is identified using a pseudonym to protect her anonymity.

Amid a cascade of revelations of sexual harassment — and worse — by high profile men in positions of power, their stories suggest that the legal profession is not unlike the media, movie or political trades in terms of the challenges faced by women in a mostly male-dominated industry.

According to the authors of an article published in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, two thirds of women working in law firms say that they’ve witnessed or personally experienced sexual harassment in the course of their career. And while one might hope that changing social norms over the last few decades would have chipped away at those numbers, things actually appear not to have changed very much.

“I have no sense that it’s any better than it was 30 years ago when I started practicing law,” said Leto Copeley, an attorney with Copeley Johnson & Groninger in Durham who represents victims of sexual harassment. “I’d like to say that it’s getting better, but I don’t think I can. I just think whenever you get someone who’s in power, men in power, many of them try to bend the rules when they can.”

Copeley said that most of the calls that her firm has gotten about sexual harassment at law firms have come from paralegals and legal assistants, but the fluidity of the market for those positions at least makes it easier for women to leave a firm where they feel uncomfortable.

For lawyers who are sexually harassed at work, there’s a tremendous pressure not to make a complaint against a powerful attorney and instead muddle through as best they can. Copeley said she personally knows several attorneys who have made that choice.

Sex and power

Survey data across industries generally suggest that sexual harassment is vastly underreported. Many of the women who spoke to Lawyers Weekly said that they never reported their experiences to anyone, in some cases because they felt like reporting the violator would negatively impact their own careers.

In law firms as in other workplaces, an employee who is a star performer or a successful leader of an organization is less likely to be confronted about misconduct, or disciplined if complaints are raised—although harassers may also project an image of having more power than they actually have.

Jackie said that she was recently at a cocktail hour at a CLE and was shocked when a “pretty big time lawyer” intentionally grabbed her rear end.

She said she didn’t want to say anything about it at the time because the attorney was so widely respected, but said in retrospect she wishes she had.

She also recounted a time when she approached a more senior attorney about a job with his firm.

The attorney said that he didn’t have any jobs available but would let her know if a position became available—then shortly thereafter, that same attorney and his wife propositioned her for sex.

“I wonder what element of the job may have been available to me if I had said yes to the sexual proposition,” Jackie said.

Meg Maloney, an attorney with Maloney Law & Associates in Charlotte who represents victims of sexual harassment, said that victims are less likely to come forward if companies don’t have a culture of taking complaints seriously, even if the accused is a major revenue generator. (Both Maloney and Copeley emphasized that they did not think that the environment in law firms was significantly different from that in companies generally.)

“I think the main problem is that people think of sexual harassment only being about sex. It’s about power. Male domination in law firms is still a big issue, and yes, women get sexually harassed in law firms, including young attorneys,” Maloney said. “It’s not just sex. It’s abuse of power.”

If you see something

The harm that victims suffer as a result of sexual harassment can be severe, Maloney said, even when no sexual assault takes place.

A survey Maloney provided found that sexual harassment has negative effects on both physical and psychological well-being. It has been associated with increased rates of work withdrawal and intentions to quit, decreased productivity, and increase in rates of depression.

Margaret said that at her former workplace, there was a distinct culture of men frequently commenting about women and the way they looked.

One colleague in particular began sending her graphic and explicit text messages late at night, and one night at a work conference the same colleague grabbed her inappropriately and without her consent.

Margaret said that as a result, she withdrew socially from other colleagues at the office.

She stopped attending happy hours and other similar events, and doubts that her co-workers understood why. She felt isolated, and experience even made her change the kind of work she was doing.

“It was really hard because at the time I was doing domestic violence work,” Margaret said. “The work I was doing was very hard anyway, but the fact was it undermined my own confidence. I felt like, if I can’t keep myself safe, how can I tell other women how to keep themselves safe?”

One of the most important factors in reducing sexual harassment in the workplace, according to research, is for people who see harassment occurring to speak up and say something. In practice, this largely means men confronting other men in the workplace when they see inappropriate behavior.

Conversely, Margaret said, her colleague’s behavior towards women was widely known about at her workplace, but the conduct nevertheless continued.

Copeley said that despite the pressures discouraging women from making complaints against men in positions of power, she hoped the revelations currently dominating the headlines would encourage more victims to report inappropriate conduct.

At larger employers, there are federal protections for employees who are retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, she said.

“I always encourage people to come forward and make complaints, but everyone has to evaluate their own situation and do the best they can,” Copeley said. “Be as powerful as you can. It’s wonderful what’s happening now in Hollywood. You have a critical mass of people who have come forward to speak up.”


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