Media Release

Global report shines light on bullying & harassment in legal profession

15 May 2019

The Law Society will draw from the insights contained in the newly released International Bar Association report on Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession to inform some of its own strategies on addressing bullying and harassment in the workplace.

The IBA report, which surveyed lawyers from all over the globe, reinforced the results from the Law Society’s own survey of the South Australian profession conducted last year, which indicated a concerning level of workplace mistreatment in the profession.

Australia had the highest percentage of respondents to the global survey, comprising 937 (13%) of the total sample. Of the Australian respondents, 61.4% reported being victims of workplace bullying, while 29.6% reported being victims of workplace sexual harassment. These figures are consistent with the Law Society’s survey of SA lawyers.

“The IBA report data is consistent with the outcomes of our own survey and shows these issues are a real problem that need to be addressed in the legal profession,” Law Society President Amy Nikolovski said.

“It was pleasing, however, that the highest number of respondents to the survey came from Australia,” Ms Nikolovski said. “This indicates that Australians are willing to talk about these important issues, call out bad behaviour and discuss ways to improve workplace culture.”

It was also noted in the report that Australia’s high reporting rates could be attributed to what the IBA report describes as a “perception paradox”, whereby jurisdictions seen as “progressive” in addressing bullying and harassment record higher rates of reporting. 

“The results appear to indicate two notable aspects about the Australian experience,” Ms Nikolovski said. “Australia is better than average at reporting cases of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace; and Australia still has a way to go in addressing reports of mistreatment in a meaningful way.”

“Movements like #MeToo have clearly been influential in Australia,” Ms Nikolovski said. “As the IBA report showed, the reporting of bullying and harassment rose significantly after the #MeToo movement entered the public consciousness. Australia was one of the countries that was particularly receptive to the movement, with more Australians emboldened to speak out against the appalling ways they have been treated.”

Despite this cultural shift, there were still a large number of respondents who said they didn’t speak about mistreatment for fear of the repercussions, be they social alienation, ridicule or fear of losing career prospects.

The reluctance to report was also partly due to the particular insidious nature of the most common forms of sexual harassment, such as inappropriate remarks, sexually explicit jokes, and leering.

Several respondents reported that they feared being branded as priggish or humourless were they to complain about these incidents, despite these incidents being completely inappropriate and demeaning and clearly having a devastating effect on their morale.

Some notable findings from the survey include:

  • Of the 135 countries surveyed, Australia had the highest number of respondents with 937 Australian practitioners responding to the survey (compared with 715 from the UK and 359 from the US).
  • 61.4% of Australian lawyers reported being victims of workplace bullying (The Law Society’s survey recorded 64% of SA respondents having experienced some form of bullying)
  • 29.6% of Australian lawyers reported being victims of workplace sexual harassment (The Law Society’s survey recorded 33% of SA respondents having experienced sexual harassment)
  • Globally, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men reported being victims of bullying
  • Globally, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 14 men reported being victims of sexual harassment
  • Australia and England were the only surveyed countries which have more practising female lawyers than male lawyers
  • Globally, Government legal workplaces had the highest average prevalence of sexual harassment
  • Firm size has no evident impact on the prevalence of sexual harassment
  • Hierarchy and power imbalance play a significant role in bullying behaviour, but less of a role in sexual harassment behaviour.

“The legal profession must undergo serious self-examination and make a commitment to stamping out bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace,” Ms Nikolovski said.

“As the President of the IBA, Horacio Bernades Neto, said in the report, lawyers are required to be of good character in order to practice.”

“There are reasons why lawyers are held to high ethical standards – their job is to uphold the rule of law and be champions of justice. Lawyers are often called upon to seek justice for victims of harassment and bullying.”

“Lawyers need to lead by example and meaningfully address demeaning and discriminatory behaviour within their own ranks, otherwise their reputation and capacity to discharge their duties is undermined.”

“The IBA report suggests that Australians are leading the way in ventilating these issues and setting high expectations for what is appropriate behaviour. The next step is to build on this and develop practical solutions to improving workplace culture.”

The Society last year formed a Working Group which is now undertaking initiatives to address the issues of bullying, discrimination and harassment in the legal profession.

Read more about the Law Society’s survey and action plan for addressing bullying, harassment and discrimination in this article published in the February 2019 edition of the Law Society Bulletin.