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#MeToo Meets Big Law: How Gender Imbalance Shapes The Workplace

Women have long struggled to find equal footing in the legal profession, but despite growing numbers of female lawyers, gender imbalance in the workplace continues to put us at a disadvantage. In light of the recent #MeToo movement addressing sexual assault and harassment, however, female lawyers are beginning to address the ongoing harassment that is often part and parcel for women in law practices, courtrooms, and other legal settings. But will these efforts create change?

Imbalances In Big Law

Law firms are unique relative to many other professional settings because the hours are long, individuals in the same practice may be unusually close with each other due to the hours and pressure, and there’s a lot of competition between peers. Such stressful, high contact work environments can create a false sense of intimacy between coworkers and even between supervisors and their direct reports.

This improper sense of intimacy makes it more likely that someone will cross the line from sociality into harassment within legal settings – and there often aren’t policies in place to address the issues. In fact, only 13% of the Am Law 100 firms have explicit guidelines about coworker relationships. And since law is perceived as an “old boys club,” it’s hard for women to come forward. In many cases, we’re forced to confide in a male supervisor who may engage in the very behavior we need to address.

The Push For Change

Although it’s concerning, the lack of policies addressing sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behavior can serve as a point of entry for women seeking to enact change within their own firms. It’s a concrete aspect of our workplace that we can address from a policy-based perspective. And the first step we need to take is to raise our voices and speak up – and be ready to address your policy goals when the opportunity to speak arises.

So how do you develop harassment prevention and staff relationship guidelines for legal settings? While it should be straightforward – many companies have such policies, and there are many boilerplate examples available, there are some quirks that are specific to law firms that you may need to identify and address.

Despite the lack of policy to proactively address harassment, many law firms have policies designed to protect their reputations. When seeking a policy change, then, it’s important to determine whether your law firm uses NDAs for sexual harassment settlements. This is a common practice, often plugged as a way to protect victims of harassment. But as women, we know better. NDAs are meant to protect men and to protect their bosses. A sexual harassment policy that supports women doesn’t prioritize NDAs or secretive arbitration agreements.

What survivor-centered anti-harassment policies do emphasize is the needs of survivors, including providing resources for recovering from sexual assault and harassment. That may involve the company providing funding to support employees pursuing counseling after workplace harassment, policies regarding how we all discuss assault and harassment cases in the office to prioritize survivors’ experiences, and enforcing meaningful consequences for harassers.

From The Office To The Courtroom

If law offices encourage inappropriate intimacy, but also can empower team members to make change or pursue recourse for intra-office harms, the situation changes when we move into the courtroom.

Many young lawyers advance through the system by working as clerks for judges are varying levels. This can help us build powerful connections, but as former clerks have testified, judges may take advantage of their power and the privacy of their chambers to make inappropriate comments to young clerks, grope them, or ask sexual questions during interviews. And, even more than in cases of firm-based harassment, clerks can feel pressured to comply because a recommendation from a high-ranking judge can propel our careers.

Research shows that holding a position of power can act as motivation to harass; those with a lot of standing in any given workplace often feel untouchable and as though their value to the workplace outweighs any harmful behaviors. What the #MeToo movement has done, though, is demonstrate that no one is untouchable. Powerful people can fall. And the courts that regularly adjudicate harassment and assault cases need to develop their own internal policies that pair inappropriate behaviors with appropriate professional and legal ramifications. Judges are not exempt from the law.

As women, we’re gaining power in the legal profession, but we’re still at a disadvantage. That’s why junior members of the field need more established members of the profession to support our efforts to change such common behaviors. While we also need support from male allies, it will ultimately fall on us as women to identify the ways our workplaces make us more vulnerable, rather than helping us pursue justice, as is the mission of our profession.

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