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Training, not policies effective in reducing workplace sexual harassment, research finds

29 November 2018

There is little evidence that policies on their own have had an impact on sexual and other harassment occuring in legal workplaces.

This is one of the findings in the International Bar Association survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. The survey is being conducted and analysed for the IBA by international legal research firm Acritas Research Ltd.

The survey closed on 26 October 2018 and gathered input from over 5,000 lawyers from 120 jurisdictions.

Preliminary findings are among the matters considered in a video by Acritas CEO Lisa Hart Shepherd which has just been released. The video, entitled "Gender diversity in law: What's preventing women progressing in law?" considers the factors which are preventing retention of women in the legal industry.

Ms Shepherd says the research has found that what did have an impact on the prevalence of harassment is training. This is reported to have reduced the incidence of harassment in the last year by around 40%, particularly by a line manager or supervisor.

"Currently though, only a fifth of lawyers report training being in place at their firms, and I would encourage all firms to introduce a comprehensive training programme for all of their people."

She says it's time for firms to step up and deal with the issue properly.

"Doing nothing, moving victims out of the department, paying people off and agreeing settlements which include confidentiality clauses must stop. None of this is helping to build trust in the system and only enables the perpetrators to continue their behaviour, if not at your firm, then somewhere else."

An IBA survey in 2016 found that 67% of women who left the legal industry left to seek a better work-life balance.

Seniority in the profession

Acritas research has found that although more women than men are entering the legal profession, just 26% of chief legal officers and women and 20% of lead partners.

The research has also found that men were paid 27% more than women in equity partner roles, and male general counsel were paid 21% more than their female counterparts.

"Home responsibilities often being a pull factor, and a toxic environment being a push factor. You add to this that women are less likely to push for promotion, or to see many female role models ahead. It isn't so much of a surprise that we have such a big drop-off at senior level," Ms Shepherd says.

Asking if women do get to the top, why are they paid less? Ms Shepherd points to Acritas research which shows that male and female partners perform at exactly the same level.

"So maybe women don't work as hard. We did find that men recorded 3% more billable hours than women. But we have to consider that maybe women are more efficient... Not that this would be rewarded in a law firm.

"We also found that women are significantly more likely to be mentors, which takes time away from billable hours, but is rarely rewarded in pay. But even if men are recording 3% more billable hours, that doesn't deserve 27% more pay. So there's something else in the compensation model that's creating this gap."

It is partly explained by originations, Ms Shepherd says. Acritas has found that clients of law firms are contributing to this problem. Research has identified a gender bias. Male clients are five times more likely to pick a male lead partner than a female lead. Given that there are three times more male clients than female clients, it means that male lawyers capture more of the originations.

Women can work hard to build the relationship with male clients, she says. But then they have to be careful of the men getting the wrong message. The IBA survey has found that 19% of harassment came from clients.

"Firms have to work harder with their clients to level the playing field."

The good news

"I want to end with some good news," Ms Shepherd says. "And the good news is this: retaining more female lawyers will bring business benefits. Gender diversity generates better results, both from the client's perspective and the firm's financial results."

Acritas research has shown that mixed gender legal teams show signficantly better performance on responsiveness, relationships and consistency of quality than single gender teams. Mixed gender teams also achieve a 10% uplift in share of average spend with the firm.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019