Frank Kimball

Reflections from a Headhunter & Hiring Partner: Stopping Sexual Harassment (Enough is Enough!)

It’s a familiar story. A woman associate is sexually harassed by a partner. The harassment may be subtle or grotesque, occasional or frequent, or hint at a quid pro quo.  It may be fueled by martinis at midnight or take place at lunch. It may happen in the office, at a restaurant, or at a firm meeting. Between 5 and 10 percent of the 5,500 women lawyers and law students I’ve met since 1977 report they have been harassed. I believe that number understates the scope of the problem. 

Firms must enforce a zero-tolerance, no-exception rule against sexual harassment. The legality of the conduct is for others to debate. Senior management must recognize that harassment is offensive, unprofessional and inappropriate.  It derails and damages careers. It’s time that law firms stop writing hall passes for misconduct.

After the jump, a typical harasser, a typical management response, and some harsh realities about the way to change the culture that allows for both ...

The offending partner - we’ll call him Bob - is often influential and believes management will take his side. Bob may be clever, have $5 million in business, and sit on the executive committee. He’s navigated political rapids for years. Crossing swords with Bob can be bad for your career. Bob picks his victims carefully - typically single, junior associates.  He stalks his prey and makes certain there aren’t witnesses. Bob’s personal life may be a mess but harassing associates makes him feel like a master of the universe. Bob may practice in a “liberal” or “conservative” firm, one with a well-oiled marketing machine which trumpets its woman friendly environment, a mega firm or a boutique.

The woman he harassed last week isn’t his first victim and she won’t be his last.  She feels at risk and conflicted. When she reports the event she is likely to be given a predictable litany of excuses • You misunderstood Bob • Bob was just trying to be funny • Bob’s harmless • Bob just had too much to drink • Boys will be boys • What you wore that day was provocative • You and Bob should get along and put this behind you.

Then a partner cautions her that taking this further would not “be good for her” and she’s advised not to discuss the matter with anyone.  “We’ve talked to Bob,” she’s assured. For “her own good” she’s moved to a new department on a different floor to “insulate” her from Bob. Of course, Bob isn’t moved or transferred and his points aren’t cut. She’s asked to be sympathetic because “Bob has a family.” She is made to feel that she caused the problem, is responsible for the consequences, and is at risk if she pursues her complaints. Her career is damaged by the firm in which she invested her expectations as a student. She feels confused, angry, and embarrassed. She must choose between remaining in an oppressive environment or testing the lateral waters in a terrible market.

Let 2010 be the year that firm leaders decide that harassment won’t be tolerated. No excuses or meaningless reprimands. It’s time to say “enough is enough.”  There can’t be a double standard - as in the military - where junior officers are keel-hauled for “fraternization” but admirals get a pass.

Considerable progress has been made in the past thirty years. But there is no room for complacency. Organizations, legislation, initiatives, and programs have assisted this walk out of the Stone Age.  But some firms still point to awards they receive but won’t deal with Bob. Some become a gold sponsor at a benefit on women’s issues but won’t tackle the issue internally. And many well-intended partners lack the courage to confront serial offenders — because it puts their own careers at risk.

The definitive wake up call may come when a CEO pulls a $10 million relationship because a firm violates the client’s standards for vendors. Are you prepared for a major client to fire your firm? To those who are skeptical about the scope of harassment, you’re not paying attention. To those who disagree, I offer no apology. To those who are troubled, you’re welcome. To those who wonder if I am writing about their firm —am I?

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