Last night disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s former assistant Zelda Perkins gave her first TV interview since breaking her nondisclosure agreement, speaking to BBC Newsnight.
In the interview, she brought the role of law firms in perpetuating sexual harassment into question by calling for an end to gagging orders and reform to the law on nondisclosure agreements.
But, while law firms such as Allen & Overy, which advised Miramax in relation to claims made against Weinstein, may have been drawn into the scandal, research done earlier this year by Legal Week, ALM Media’s London-based publication, found that female lawyers are often victims. Two-thirds of female lawyers responding to Legal Week’s survey said they had experienced sexual harassment while working in a law firm.
Here, some of them anonymously share their stories.
“When I was a trainee I was groped and lunged at by a practice head at the Christmas party. Other partners there pulled him away and told him off, and led me away to check that I—and another trainee similarly targeted—were OK. But nothing formal was said or done by anyone.
“He was a notorious groper (squeezing thighs under the table) in meetings. Everyone knew what he was like. Nobody did anything. And I guess I (and probably others) just put up with it because we didn’t feel like we had options. He wasn’t directly threatening to me, but the incident was annoying and somewhat humiliating. If felt very much that there was a culture of women just putting up with that kind of thing.
Everyone knew what he was like—nobody did anything
“Women are still judged on appearance more than men. Men just need to look smart. Women are meant to look attractive still. The ‘everyday sexism’ that we live in, the ‘cheer up love’ culture leads ultimately to women feeling they just have to put up with stuff that they really shouldn’t be expected to.”
“Sadly a lot of us keep silent and feel guilt and shame and let them get away with it. Partly because we don’t think we would get justice or the trauma of speaking out is too much. Or because we can’t bear to admit we have been victims and would rather forget the whole thing, or feel that we are somehow to blame for what happened, by being naive or letting ourselves be vulnerable.”
“He was a partner—a new partner brought in from another firm and phenomenally good at what he did. He brought in a good client base and everyone loved him so he was able to get away with a lot of stuff he shouldn’t have.
“He was very inappropriate with words and actions. I went out with him one evening and he came up behind me while I was at the bar and put his hands on my bum; brushed against me. I asked him to back off and he did but then when I went to our table the only space was next to him. I sat there, he put his hand on my thigh—up my skirt. Loads of people saw but no one did anything because of his client base.
“I’ve seen countless examples of abhorrent behavior from people who should know better—it’s the fact no one did anything that I don’t agree with. He’d done this to multiple people, slept with younger lawyers who ended up leaving.
Even if something happened to me today I don’t think I’d say anything—if you want to be in this industry you accept this is something you have to live with
“When I asked a manager if I should report it, they said no, because everyone loved him. He was just a lech all the time. Eventually, it went to disciplinary but they believed him over her. I didn’t say anything but I wish I had.
“This is still very much a problem today—I honestly don’t think it would be taken more seriously today, even post-Weinstein. Even if something happened to me now I don’t think I’d say anything—if you want to be in this industry you have to accept that this is something you have to live with.”
“As a woman, our gut reaction is what did I do to deserve that? I’ve had hands up my skirt, a judge rubbing my back—but it isn’t just about physical harassment. It’s also belittling comments.
“I was having dinner with a female partner in a firm and we were discussing the number of times we’ve gone into board meetings where the men just direct their questions to the other men.
Firms don’t want to get rid of big billing flirty partners and if you’re the person speaking up you become a liability—the person people don’t want around
“Recently I was in negotiations with someone and one male partner wouldn’t even look at me or answer my questions. Another was abusive about me to my boss, but I’d done nothing wrong. Putting women down, making us feel that we don’t have a place in the room; that we’re second to men, disarming us, belittling us, making us feel powerless—I’m not sure what’s worse between that and physical harassment.
“When you’re conducting your job you don’t want things like that to be distracting; you can’t stand up for yourself because you don’t want to say anything in front of your superior; show it’s getting under your skin.
“On another occasion, someone in my company said to me: ‘Your problem is you’re a woman—no one is ever going to feel they can trust you or tell you things.’ The insinuation is that I couldn’t do my job because I’m female.”
Things will only change if people speak up—it’s moving far too slowly
“I know of firms where there’ve been big issues but they just write a check and get an NDA signed. Firms don’t want to get rid of big billing flirty partners and if you’re the person speaking up you become a liability—the person people don’t want around.
“But things will only change if people speak up—it’s moving far too slowly.”
Lawyer at a regional UK firm:
“A practice head once claimed he’d bedded me (then a trainee in her second seat) to the other partners, when in fact I’d succeeded in losing him, finally, at the Underground station.
“I was working at a [London] firm as a senior associate and was groped by a partner before the firm Christmas party. I reported it to the partner I worked for and he referred it to the senior partner. I did not report it to the police but now wish I had.”
London lawyer 2:
“Twenty years ago a partner at the [London] firm at which I worked systematically sexually harassed junior women, and generally behaved inappropriately under the influence of alcohol. I only reported this after I left and the managing partner’s response showed he was aware. The man in question has since lost his job.”
“My personal experience is of raising an issue regarding sexual harassment of two women by a male assistant with my fellow partners (all male). The partner in charge of that assistant was very defensive and the assistant was nonetheless awarded a big pay rise and given a shot at promotion. The assistant was spoken to about the harassment but because the women did not want to make their complaint formally, the view seemed to be that he had done nothing wrong.”
“I am aware of junior or non-fee earning staff who have been summarily dismissed for breaches of conduct, whilst senior staff, particularly partners, get away with murder, often with the knowledge of senior management who may even actively take steps to ‘sweep it under the carpet.’
“If a corporate partner accounts for £1 million profitable billings then all manner of inappropriate and borderline psychotic behavior will be tolerated, as will the risk of claims arising from it. I have heard of a firm that regards the price of settling claims as being worth the profit generated by one particular problem partner.”
“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an ongoing issue. It may not be as overt now as it was in the 1990s because society has changed but it is still there in the comments, the ‘jokes,’ the observations. It is also still there physically but it is subtle: hugs on a night out, being ‘complimented’ and similar as opposed to outright groping (although that does still happen) but it is done in a manner which is definitely not neutral. It can also happen junior to senior as well as senior to junior.”
- ALM Media’s The American Lawyer is also examining the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct in the legal industry. The first in a series of articles, Behind Big Law’s Wall of Silence on Sexual Misconduct, looking at what top U.S. law firms are doing to address problematic relationships in the workplace.