Research for the Society indicates a continuing level of bullying within the profession, with both a human and a financial cost. The Society has responded with guidance on tackling the problem

A promising trainee, Andrew eventually left his post and the legal profession altogether following his experiences working for a law firm partner who, despite a professional public persona, had a very different attitude behind the scenes. Andrew’s difficulties at the firm were common knowledge but no efforts were made to improve the situation, and he was simply advised to “keep his head down”. Unable to get help and feeling completely beaten down, Andrew left the firm and decided not to pursue a career as a solicitor.

Mary, a successful partner at a firm where she had helped to build the business for 10 years, found herself in a similar situation, despite her experience and seniority, when a new managing partner repeatedly criticised her work and performance in front of colleagues. For almost a year, Mary was criticised, harassed and undermined but, even with support from colleagues and talks to her managing partner about the impact on her career, health and family life, the bullying behaviour continued. The situation deteriorated after Mary raised a formal complaint; other employees were instructed not to speak to her, and she was excluded from the firm’s activities. The cost to the business in terms of staff morale and client relationships has been significant.

These case studies, with names changed, are just two of the 15 which form part of the report Preventing Bullying and Harassment in the Profession, recently published by the Society alongside new guidance on preventing bullying and harassment. It follows the 2006 “Profile of the Profession” research, which highlighted that around 22% of those in the profession felt they had been subject to bullying or harassment.

Action points

Neil Stevenson, the Society’s Director of Support and Representation, says the percentage “is no higher than in other professions and industries, but we view bullying as an extremely serious issue”. He commented:

“What we have found, and the series of case studies in the report illustrate this, is that it has a significant impact on the success of the business as a whole and can lead to increased stress and anxiety, low morale, poor performance, increased sick leave and in some cases, the loss of good staff.”

Prepared by Equality Works, the report makes a number of recommendations for action by the Society. These include:

raising awareness of bullying and harassment across the profession, through communications, events and online resources;

  • developing model policies, guidance and best practices;
  • increasing support for trainees and new solicitors, the groups most impacted by bullying and harassment;
  • support for firms of all sizes on building management skills, to recognise and respond effectively to bullying behaviour and provide effective support and management of lawyers and staff;
  • ongoing monitoring, to identify and prevent patterns, stimulate action and monitor change.
  • The new guidance (see panel) is part of the Society’s response.

Stevenson added: “Bullying is something that is experienced by a minority of individuals, but I believe it is for everyone to take responsibility in ensuring that it doesn’t happen. Not only can it be catastrophic in terms of the career and personal life of the individual on the receiving end, but it is also extremely bad for business and, put simply, should not be tolerated in the workplace.

“Of course, dealing with bullying can be a very sensitive issue, particularly when it concerns a senior staff member. The guidance, however, provides advice on adopting procedures to manage such situations.”

Two-way guidance

The guidance explains the various forms that bullying and harassment can take, some of which may be less obvious, and how individuals can identify early warning signs. It then sets out possible courses of action, as well as sources of help and support.

For employers it recommends informing themselves about the issue, creating a formal policy or statement of commitment, and providing clear guidance and/or procedures for the policy, along with training for managers and a workplace culture of effective response to complaints.

Elaine MacGlone, a solicitor in the Society’s professional support team, said: “The guidance is designed to provide sound advice on combating bullying and harassment. We are also planning to review the support services we currently offer solicitors, such as our counselling support for those affected by the downturn and the support helpline for trainees, and examine which of the report’s recommendations should be adopted.”

The guidance will be issued to law firms and can be downloaded (as can the report) from the Equality and Diversity section of the Society’s website:

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