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Sexual Harassment: What If It Happened at Your Firm?

The associate is blushing. Her forehead glistens with sweat. “Lately Karl has been complimenting me a lot on my figure and my taste in clothes. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

You’re the managing partner (or administrator) at this large firm. What do you say to these complaints about a partner? Maybe you confront the partner. But for the sake of our story, let’s say you don’t. “Really, Sarah, are a few compliments so terrible? Come on, be a good sport.”

“Law firms tend not to take sexual harassment complaints seriously enough,” according to Laurel Bellows, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “Firms should investigate an employee’s complaint as meticulously as they would a client’s. But it’s the old adage: "The shoemaker’s daughter wears no shoes.”

Sexual Harassment Happens at Law Firms Too

Dr. Freada Klein, president of Klein Associates, has helped dozens of law firms resolve and prevent sexual harassment. “We surveyed lawyers who experienced harassment, bias or discrimination while working for their firms in the past year. About 60 percent were too afraid to complain.” Maybe the firm wouldn’t believe them. Or maybe it would leak their embarrassing story, and then coworkers would label them “the victim.” Or worse, the harasser might get them demoted. Partners could axe them from important projects. Maybe the harassers were also mentors. How many people would give up a valuable mentor, to dodge a few off-color remarks?

Going back to the example above, do you reassure yourself after Sarah leaves your office, thinking: “She’ll adjust to Karl’s compliments. Karl brings in more business than anyone else here. A smart lawyer like that isn’t going to set us up for a harassment suit!”

“Law firms often think they’re above the law,” Klein says. “Yet there’s even more sexual harassment in law firms than in Fortune 500 companies.” Klein has surveyed personnel: 17 percent of female attorneys — and 12 percent of support staff — said they’d been harassed in the past year. You’re no safer in a small firm than you are in a large one.

Are you ready to confront Karl, your firm’s best rainmaker?

What If a Senior Partner Is the Harasser?

Jonathan Vegosen — employment and labor lawyer at Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn, Chicago — admits it can be tough to challenge a partner. “Firms may fear that a powerful partner might retaliate by taking business elsewhere or cutting a colleague’s compensation.” Vegosen has helped law firms prevent and deal with sexual harassment. He suggests you tell an offending partner: “None of us is above the law. While you’re an important member of this firm and you may control a lot of business, you still have to comply with the law. Because number one, sexual harassment is wrong. And number two, you could expose us to tremendous liability.”

But wait a minute. All Karl’s done is compliment Sarah’s clothes and figure. Is this enough reason to give a partner grief?

“About 75 percent of subtle sexual harassment escalates over time,” Klein says. Sexual jokes could turn into, “How does your husband turn you on in bed?” This year an associate might peer up his secretary’s dress as she climbs the stairs; next year he might chase her around his desk. Klein advises law firms to try to nip harassment in the bud, by investigating even subtle behavior.

Dating Relationships Between Coworkers

Should firms limit dating? “Firms ought to discourage consensual relationships between people of unequal power,” Klein says. She advises that you write this into your sexual harassment and conflict-of-interest policies. “Tell people that if they’re in a romantic relationship with a subordinate, they must disclose that to the managing partner or some other representative.” The person should recuse himself from any responsibility over the lover’s compensation, performance evaluation, or assignments.

Bellows advises firms to discourage romance even between peers. “Remind people that if the relationship sours, they may risk more than a sexual harassment claim. Even if there’s no harassment, they risk losing a close working relationship. And that’s a loss for the firm.”

Do you plan to intervene on Sarah’s behalf? Do you talk to Karl? Meet with him and Sarah? Call in a consultant?

Especially when someone’s complained about a partner, you might want to hire a consultant. “That way, the partner won’t feel coworkers are ganging up on him,” Vegosen says. The consultant may not even have to point a finger. “One accounting firm was reluctant to confront a very powerful partner. So they asked me to do a presentation to all the partners.” The offending partner had been making sexual remarks; Vegosen presented hypothetical scenarios that were very similar. “The partner must have gotten the message. He stopped harassing.”

Anti-Harassment Policies and Training

You meet with a consultant to revise your sexual harassment policy. “Are you following up on the Sarah-and-Karl situation?” the consultant asks. “I know you’ve moved Karl’s office, but the law requires you to do your best to prevent further harassment.” You reassure the consultant you’ll check with Sarah every couple of weeks for the next six months or so. “Now, how am I going to rewrite our policy so that it’s more than just a piece of paper?”

Once you've finished revising your firm's anti-harassment policy, your top partners need to endorse it strongly, or it won’t work. “The head of the firm should stand up in front of everyone and present the policy,” Bellows says.

Klein adds, “The law requires you to create complaint channels that encourage victims to come forward. But most law firms don’t do that. Instead they tell workers, ‘You must make a formal complaint, and we must investigate’.” Many victims then freeze because they know they probably won’t get confidentiality. “Firms should give employees the option of reporting to an ombudsperson, for example, who maybe mediates, and who won’t violate confidentiality except in extreme circumstances.”

Klein notes, “Firms should reiterate their sexual harassment policy at least once a year.”

Now, how will you rewrite your policy?

“Some firms hurt themselves by being too rigid,” Klein says. “They prohibit consensual relationships, for example, which is impossible to enforce. And why prohibit a wonderful relationship that isn’t causing any problem?” Other firms have warned employees not to comment on anyone’s appearance. Klein has even heard firms tell male partners not to meet with female associates or support staff in their offices with the door closed.

Bellows says, “Some partners are so paranoid about harassment lawsuits that they forbid women lawyers to take on certain cases. They don’t want the women to have to travel overnight with a man, or work many late hours with him. Other lawyers won’t ask women lawyers out for a drink after work.” Bellows says this is a serious problem for women who want to build rapport with partners so that they can advance their careers. “Gender discrimination is not the solution to sexual harassment.”

Finally! You’ve finished revising your policy and training program. You walk the consultant to the door. “Thanks. I hope we won’t have any more harassment at our firm, but if we do, we’re prepared to deal with it.”

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