Editor’s note: This is the first monthly editorial from The American Lawyer’s new Young Lawyer editorial board.
Law students are trained to understand the dynamics of power and influence as they exist within government organizations and corporations. Early experiences in courtrooms, client meetings and negotiations further instruct new lawyers on these dynamics. But young lawyers are not necessarily prepared for the power structures that exist within the law firms and legal departments whose halls they walk, or the abuses of power that exist within our profession—including sexual misconduct that sidelines critical talent at a time when the industry aspires for greater gender diversity in its senior ranks.
As lawyers, we serve as authorities on the law; our occupation enables our justice system to function. Despite that privilege—or perhaps because of it—some law firms and their membership (whether knowingly or unknowingly) diminish reports of misconduct, condone a hostile work environment, and penalize those who speak out about these wrongs. In effect, lawyers can become the antithesis of advocates when it comes to supporting and protecting the victims among them.
This board encourages the legal industry—in all its enterprises, public and private—to take a hard look at itself in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a sweeping social media initiative that provided a platform for thousands of people to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. We believe it is imperative that victims of sexual misconduct in our profession are no longer dismissed or belittled, and that perpetrators of such misconduct are held accountable irrespective of their professional stature or book of business. Law firms often misjudge the costs of sexual misconduct on their workforce and longevity plans. It is not lost on us how the related loss of talent—mostly female—contributes to disparities between women and men in our profession.
This Is What Sexual Misconduct in Law Firms Looks Like
For those unfamiliar with sexual misconduct in a law firm, and the unfortunate responses to such behavior, we offer the following real-world examples:
- A summer associate joins colleagues for an after-party at a bar following a firm event. As she sits next to a partner, he touches the jewelry on her wrist and states, “I’d like to see you in just this.” When she reports the incident, the firm responds by banning the partner from future interaction with summer associates.
- A partner initiates an affair with an associate on his team and promises to leave his spouse for her. When the partner reconsiders, the team leader asks the associate, who is one year shy of partnership, to move to another office location so that the partner can reconcile his marriage. Ultimately the associate leaves the firm so that she does not have to relocate. The partner is not reprimanded and is permitted extensive time out of the office for counseling.
- A female partner engages in sexual relations with a male summer associate.
- A partner tells an associate that she will not be promoted to partner unless she agrees to have an affair with him.
- A firm’s hiring partner is known for taking male and female summer associates to strip clubs and to his house for “after parties” following firm events—which often involve associates making sexual advances toward recruiting staff who are also present. The partner is not reprimanded and is instead seen as a recruiting superstar for showing the summer associates a good time.
Some may view comments related to sexuality as workplace gossip or harmless flirting. But young lawyers who are vigilant about career advancement and rightly concerned about personal safety, scrutinize and react to this unprofessional behavior through their career choices, which are often detrimental to the victim and to the firm. The following examples demonstrate how perceived favoritism based on sex, and a firm’s reaction to sexual innuendo, can result in drastic career decisions by young lawyers.
- A young lawyer known for high-quality work increasingly receives work from a male equity partner who is uncharacteristically kind to her, in contrast with his reputation for being difficult. Another partner remarks that the equity partner has a “crush” on the associate. The associate questions whether she receives work based on her own merit. She eventually decides to leave the firm due to her discomfort with this situation.
- Partners openly comment that an attractive junior associate is asked to present to clients because of her looks. Other associates assume that the junior associate will be favored for this superficial reason and seek work in other practice areas instead.
- A senior associate meets with a partner to share the experience of a junior associate who confided in her about sexual innuendo from another partner. The partner dismisses it, stating that the junior associate is being “dramatic.”
- Several prominent male partners in a practice group are known for only taking male associates to lunch. As a result, female associates are not able to discuss their career development or possible work assignments with these partners and their teams are virtually all male. Most female associates end up leaving the practice group.
Recommendations for Young Lawyers
The nature of legal work requires long hours at the office, resulting in isolation from family, friends and community. Other scenarios, such as trial preparation, may create situations where colleagues are unusually dependent upon one another for professional and emotional support over an extended period of time. Notwithstanding these factors, try not to allow your perspective on professional and personal boundaries to become skewed. If you feel that you have been mistreated or that a colleague has crossed the line, seek advice from a trusted peer or mentor and, importantly, also seek guidance from someone outside the legal profession as well. A layperson can offer an objective point of view as you consider next steps. Additionally, many firms offer employee assistance programs with confidential counseling.
If you are the victim of sexual harassment, familiarize yourself with your employer’s sexual harassment policy. Report the incident to your human resources department, and if none, to the office managing partner. Consider that some partners may not respond with the firm’s official stance on misconduct; therefore, it may be wise to confide in a partner who is in a leadership role outside of your practice group to seek unbiased treatment. If you are the victim of a crime, report the incident as soon as possible to law enforcement.
A safe, productive workplace free of sexual harassment is in everyone’s best interest. Ideally, young lawyers who believe they have been subjected to sexual misconduct will be heard, respected and treated fairly by their employers. If you are concerned that you may be treated unfairly, or penalized by reporting the incident, seek assistance. Colleagues and mentors can help you navigate the situation and potentially lend support to your efforts. You can also consider contacting your network and a legal recruiter to gauge the legal market in your city and your job options. While leaving your employment is not ideal, it may be the only option in some circumstances. For example, if you report an incident and your employer’s resolution is not one that protects you and others from being further victimized, seek safe and supportive employment elsewhere.
If you witness sexual misconduct, offer support to the victim. Ask the victim if she or he would like for you to speak up on their behalf by either contacting firm management or human resources.
A Call to Law Firms
As the leaders of the Time’s Up movement write, harassment “too often persists because perpetrators and employers never face any consequences.” Lawyers are empowered citizens, but still vulnerable to the hierarchical structures of legal employment where advancement and promotion often rests in the hands and discretion of powerful—and still primarily male—equity partners and management committees. Firm leaders and human resources are too reluctant to challenge this power structure. Consequently, practice groups and offices can become tainted by misbehavior, resulting in talented lawyers lost and new business unrealized, in addition to the social costs involved.
Time is up for the status quo. Firms with short-sighted responses to sexual misconduct complaints will lose young lawyers, especially women, in law firm ranks, exacerbating the gender disparity in the senior ranks of our profession. Firms must establish zero tolerance policies for sexual misconduct, without regard to title, revenue generation or equity status, and a transparent and accessible venue for complaints. Likewise employers must ensure that allegations of misconduct are thoroughly and promptly investigated through an impartial, fair process, which affords due process while also protecting victims from retaliation.
It is not the aim of this board to encourage firms to limit interactions among their professionals; rather, we call on those in leadership positions who value respectful and productive professional relationships to leverage their power to protect our profession from damaging misconduct and a culture that permits abuse. Firms must encourage male attorneys not to be afraid of mentoring female associates or inviting them to professional development or networking events, even those with a social component. Firms must insist that their attorneys have nothing to fear if they do not abuse their position. Firms can provide coaching on appropriate conduct and training on gender-neutral mentoring. If a client harasses one of your lawyers, stand by your colleague at all costs.
Too many young lawyers have lost their dignity at work, and in some cases, their careers, because their employers have sidelined victims or failed to take remedial action. We encourage all of you to stand with us and pledge to not be silent when we experience, or learn of, sexual misconduct in our law firms or legal departments, and to insist that the perpetrators are held accountable.
Aaron Swerdlow Alex Tarnow Andrea Guzman Andrew Warner Anusia Gillespie Aydin Bonabi Bess Hinson Blair Kaminsky Brianna Howard Brooke Anthony Emily Stedman Emma Walsh Garrett Ordower Geoffrey Young Heather Souder Choi Holly Dolejsi Jennifer Yashar Jessica Tuchinsky Ji Hye You Josh Sussberg Kevin Morse Kyle Sheahen Lauren Doyle Martina Tyreus Hufnal Mauricio Espana Nicole Gutierrez Peter Buckley Quynh Vu Rakesh Kilaru Reggie Schafer Sakina Rasheed Foster Sara Harris Shishene Jing Tamara Bruno Tim Fitzmaurice Timothy Perla Todd Koretzky Travis Lenkner Trisha Rich Wyley Proctor
The views expressed here are personal to the authors and do not represent the opinions of their employers.