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Increase in the number of sexual misconduct cases in law firms

Financial, Executive and Professional Risks (FINEX)
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By Jennifer Chan | March 31, 2020

Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last few years, you cannot fail to have noticed the seismic cultural and societal shift in attitudes towards reports and allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The wave has been slow to reach the legal sector directly but recent headlines in the national and international media confirm that law firms are now firmly in the spotlight with regards to sexual misconduct cases.

In May 2019, the Guardian newspaper1 reported that:

  • "Bullying and sexual harassment rife among lawyers, global survey finds UK levels above international average as report says incidents are chronically under reported"

In September the same year, the Financial Times2 ran an article stating that:

  • “London law firm sex scandals near record high” – Misconduct cases persist following deluge in wake of #MeToo movement

And then in October came the news that Freshfields were threatening to fine partners for “inappropriate behaviour” in the wake of one of their former partners being fined by the SDT and resigning following allegations of sexual misconduct by a junior female colleague.3

According to a global survey of almost 7,000 lawyers across 135 countries carried out by the International Bar Association (IBA)4 and titled “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”, levels of bullying within the UK legal profession are above the international average with 62% of female respondents and 41% of male respondents reporting that they had been bullied in connection with their employment. By comparison, the international averages were 55% and 30% respectively.

The report also highlighted that the frequency of sexual harassment in the UK is closer to the global average, with 38% of female and 6% of male respondents reporting that they had been affected. Internationally, 37 % of female and 7% of male respondents had experienced sexual harassment during their career.

However more than 75% of such cases globally were going unreported for a variety of reasons including the victims’ fear of repercussions for their careers.

Horacio Bernardes Neto, President of the IBA wrote, following the publication of the report5, that:

  • “Following the global #MeToo movement, the legal profession has regularly been called upon to advise other sectors on these issues. Our ability to advise effectively and drive broader societal change is undermined if we do not address the risk of hypocrisy.
  • “If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character. Addressing the widespread bullying and sexual harassment among us is an important step in safeguarding the long-term vitality of this essential profession.”

The IBA made a series of recommendations including raising awareness and developing and implementing policies, standards, training and procedures to deal with harassment and bullying.

The SRA has seemingly taken up this call to arms by the IBA and vowed that there will be no let-up in the prosecution of senior solicitors suspected of sexual misconduct with colleagues.

Where such issues have previously been treated as HR investigations or as criminal matters and thus not within the SRA’s remit the regulator has made it clear that if such allegations are found to have breached the regulatory code either through an abuse of authority, a complete lack of integrity and have brought the profession into disrepute, they will be put at the most serious end of the scale for enforcement action.

Such has been the deluge of reports to the SRA that they have been prompted to launch a dedicated sexual harassment unit6 to handle all such cases.

What should firms be doing?

Below, we briefly consider some practical points for what firms should be doing to protect against exposure to these increasing risks:

To quote a time-worn phrase immortalised by Bob Hoskins and Maureen Lipman in the old BT adverts: “It’s good to talk”.

  • Communication is key
  • Firms should ensure that internal policies and processes for handling any issues arising from these areas are up to date and well communicated throughout the firm
  • Ensure you are having the conversation with your Insurance broker regarding the adequacy of your existing D&O / Management Liability cover and highlighting any areas of particular concern regarding sexual misconduct or harassment-type issues
  • Consider whether an enhanced D & O wording might be appropriate for your business - a standard Minimum Terms policy is unlikely pick up claims emanating from these areas. Discuss your firm’s options regarding enhanced wordings with your broker.

Footnote

1 Bowcott, O. (2019, May, 15) “Bullying and sexual harassment rife among lawyers, global survey finds”. The Guardian.

2 Beioley, K. (2019, September, 27). London law firms sex scandals near record high. Financial Times.

3 Slingo. J (2019, October 21) “Freshfields threatens to fine partners for 'inappropriate behaviour”. The Law Society Gazette.

4 International Bar Association (2019). “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”. Retrieved from the International Bar Association Website

5 Bowcott, O. (2019, May, 15) “Bullying and sexual harassment rife among lawyers, global survey finds”. The Guardian.

6 Rose, N. (2019, July, 25). “SRA received 70 workplace harassment complaints last year”. Legal Futures.

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