New Zealand Law Society - IBA report finds high rates of bullying and sexual harassment

IBA report finds high rates of bullying and sexual harassment

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An International Bar Association (IBA) report has identified very high rates of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession.

The 130-page report, Us Too? Bullying and Harassment in the Legal Profession draws on data collected from 6,980 surveyed legal professionals from 135 countries.

The results provide insight into the nature, prevalence and impact of bullying and sexual harassment across the worldwide community of lawyers.

The findings include:

  • One in two women and one in three men have experienced bullying in the workplace;
  • One in three women and one in 14 male respondents have been sexually harassed;
  • In 57% of bullying cases, incidents were not reported, with this rising to 75% for episodes of sexual harassment;
  • There is considerable adverse impact, and 65% of bullied practitioners have left or considered leaving their workplace as a result.
  • Workplaces are not doing enough to prevent or adequately respond to misconduct, with policies regarding bullying and sexual harassment present in only 53% of workplaces;
  • Just one in five workplaces have conducted training in recognising and reporting problems in these areas.

The IBA report also includes 10 recommendations, and announces a global engagement campaign which will run from May to September 2019. This will begin with events in at least 17 cities, including Auckland, and culminate with a showcase session at the 2019 IBA Annual Conference in Seoul in September 2019.

The survey respondents

Of those who completed the survey, 73% were working in law firms, with 9% in corporation/organisations, 6% in barristers’ chambers, 5% in government and 3% in the judiciary.

Over half – 51% - the respondents were from Europe, 15% from Oceania, 13% from North America, 12% from Latin America, 6% from Asia and 4% from Africa.

The country with the most respondents was Australia, with 937 (13% of total), followed by the United Kingdom (715, 10%), Sweden (644,9%), Canada (571, 8%), Norway (509, 7%) and the United States (359, 5%). It is not known how many New Zealand respondents there were, but it would have been less than the 120 (2%) reported for the Russian Federation. On a regional basis New Zealand will be included in Oceania with Australia.

The majority – 53% - of respondents were aged under 40, and 76% were aged under 50.

Sexual harassment results

The survey found that workplace sexual harassment has an unequal impact on female members of the legal profession. Of all female respondents, 37% had experienced sexual harassment during their career, while 7% of male respondents had been sexually harassed and 43% of non-binary/self-defined people. On a gender-weighted basis, the survey found that sexual harassment impacts 22% of the profession.

Respondents who had not personally experienced sexual harassment were asked whether they had witnessed it in work-related contexts: 23% of femal respondents and 26% of male respondents had witnessed sexual harassment.

Government workplaces had the highest average prevalence of sexual harassment on a gender-weighted basis, at 35% of respondents. Law firms had the lowest rate at 20%. Judicial workplaces (23%), in-house workplaces (26%) and barristers’ chambers (28%) were above the overall mean.

Legal professionals in Oceania experienced the highest prevalence of sexual harassment, at 30% on a gender-weighted basis. Oceania was followed by Africa (28%) and North America (28%).

Sexual harassment disproportionately impacts younger members of the profession, with 29.4% of female respondents under the age of 30 having experienced sexual harassment within the past year. Within law firms, on a gender-weighted basis, 16% of trainees, 20% of solicitors/associates, 22% of senior associates/senior solicitors and 23% of partners had been sexually harassed.

Sexist, sexual and sexually suggestive comments were the most commonly experienced forms of sexual harassment, while inappropriate physical contact and sexual propositions were also common: 22% of sexually harassed respondents had been fondled, kissed or groped, while 3% had been sexually assaulted.

Of respondents who had been sexually harassed, 84% said they had been harassed on more than one occasion. There were no significant variations by gender, age, region or workplace type, although barristers were more likely to have been sexually harassed more than once.

The workplace was the most common location for sexual harassment, with 75% of those respondents who had been sexually harassed. Work social events (49.6%), work travel (18.7%) and conferences (15.6%) were the other common sites of sexual harassment.

More than half – 54.1% - of reported incidents of sexual harassment in the survey were perpetrated by non-supervisor senior colleagues. Supervisors/line managers (36.6%) were second most common category of perpetrator, followed by colleagues of a similar level of seniority (27.8%).

The report notes that sexual harassment is chronically under-reported. In 75.4% of cases in the survey the target did not report the incident. Sexual harassment was reported sometimes by 13.6% of respondents, and on all occasions by 7.3%.

The most common reporting channel was internal workplace channels, in 83% of cases. This was followed by other (16%), professional body regulatory (eg, law society) at 3.9%, the Police (2.3%) and public regulator (1.8%).

Asked about the impact of the conduct, 35.4% of respondents who had been sexually harassed said they had left or were considering leaving their workplace; and 7.5% were considering leaving the profession.

Bullying results

When asked have you ever been bullied in the workplace, 55% of women, 30.2% of men and 71.4% of non-binary/self defined people said “Yes”. Of respondents who had not been bullied, 40% of women and 32% of men said they had witnessed workplace bullying.

The results showed that government legal workplaces had the highest average gender-weighted prevalence of bullying, at 69% of respondents. Law firms had the lowest rate, at 39%, with in-house workplaces (45%), judicial workplaces (46%) and barristers’ chambers (48%) all sitting just above the overall mean.

Legal professionals in Oceania experienced the highest prevalence of bullying, at 62% on a gender-weighted basis, followed by Africa (52%), North America (51%) and Latin America (46%). Female respondents from Oceania experienced the highest prevalence of bullying (74%), while male respondents from Scandanavia experienced the lowest prevalence (14%).

Younger legal professionals were disproportionately impacted by bullying. In the past year of people who had been bullied, 32.8% were younger than 25, followed by people aged 25 to 29 (20.8%) – meaning over half of those who had been bullied were aged below 30.

There was broad consistency in the type of bullying experienced between genders. Female respondents were significantly more likely to have experienced too much or too little work, and to have been blocked from opportunities due to gender (or other characteristics). The most common type of bullying was ridicule or demeaning language (57.1%), followed by overbearing supervision, undermining of work output or constant unproductive criticism (55.4%) and misuse of power or position (55.0%).

Most bullying cases – 93.2% - occurred in the workplace. Work social events (12.7%) and courtrooms (8.5%) were next.

Line managers/supervisors were the most frequent perpetrators of bullying (60.5%), followed by other senior colleagues (43.3%) and someone of equal seniority (18.2%).

Bullying in legal workplaces was rarely reported. When asked, for each category of bullying they had experienced, whether they had reported the conduct, only 11.2% of respondents had done so on all occasions, while 57.2% had never reported any bullying and 27.5% sometimes.

New Zealand

New Zealand is not mentioned in the results specifically. It will be included in Oceania with Australia for regional results, but the New Zealand response rate was low. The IBA survey was promoted to New Zealand lawyers through Law Society publications a number of times. It is possible that the New Zealand Law Society’s Workplace Environment Survey may have also stopped some New Zealand lawyers from participating in the IBA survey. The IBA survey was carried out starting in late June 2018, while the New Zealand survey was conducted in April 2018.

The New Zealand Workplace Environment Survey ran from 5 April to 1 May 2018 and was conducted by Colmar Brunton. It was sent to 13,662 lawyers and 3,516 lawyers completed the survey – a response rate of 26%. It appears that fewer than 120 New Zealand lawyers completed the IBA survey.

Of the high level results from the New Zealand survey, 18% of lawyers (31% of women and 5% of men) had been sexually harassed during their working life. This compares with the total IBA survey finding that 37% of women, 7% of men and 43% of non-binary/self-defined people had been sexually harassed.

For bullying, 52% of lawyers in the New Zealand survey had been bullied at some time in their working life, and 21% had been bullied in the last six months. The IBA survey found that 55% of women, 30.2% of men and 71.4% of non-binary/self defined people had been bullied at some time in their working life.

More detailed analysis of the New Zealand survey and its findings is available here, and other resources, initiatives and research on bullying and harassment in the New Zealand legal community are available here.

The IBA report also highlights a “perception paradox”, whereby jurisdictions typically viewed as “progressive” in addressing issues of bullying and sexual harassment have higher reported rates of such conduct than elsewhere.

“Cultural norms influence individual perceptions of bullying and sexual harassment, and this survey was undertaken on a subjective basis. Accordingly, broad societal awareness of these issues and commonplace workplace utilisation of policies and training may have contributed to above-average reported rates in certain jurisdictions and workplace types,” it says.


The IBA report is accompanied by 10 recommendations. Developed by the IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit, it says these have been informed by the survey data, extensive secondary literature and dialogue with stakeholders from different spheres of the profession globally.

“These recommendations are starting points for ongoing discourse regarding how the legal profession can effectively and proactively address workplace bullying and sexual harassment. The voices of all stakeholders are welcome in this dialogue,” it says.

The recommendations are:

Raise awareness: The profession should ensure that the report and similar research is widely distributed, with law firms and other legal workplaces considering internal dissemination of the report. Law societies and bar associations should consider holding events for discussion of the issues. The IBA will undertake a global engagement campaign to raise awareness of the issues and encourage dialogue among all stakeholders. Global events are already planned in 17 cities, including Auckland, to culminate with a showcase session at the IBA Annual Conference in Seoul in September 2019.

Implement and revise policies and standards: “Policies are no panacea,” the report says, “but they are a necessary starting point”. The IBA recommends that the profession should collectively endeavour to introduce or revise policies. Regulators of the profession should consider the appropriateness and efficacy of introducing mandatory requirements for workplace policies to address bullying and sexual harassment, as has been done in some jurisdictions. The IBA says it will review and revise its own workplace policies.

Introduce regular, customised training: The profession should make a concerted effort to improve the frequency and quality of training to address bullying and sexual harassment. Individual workplaces that do not currently undertake training should consider doing so on a regular and customised basis. Workplaces that do run training should review their methods and frequency. The IBA will create an online resource hub to serve as a clearing house for materials on effective training.

Increase dialogue and best practice sharing: The profession should consider creating networks to discuss challenges and trends and share ideas as to what works and what does not. At the regional and global level, law societies, bar associations and professional regulators should engage more actively with their counterparts on bullying and sexual harassment. The IBA will encourage its divisions and committees to regularly include sessions on bullying and sexual harassment as part of the IBA Annual Conference and regional conferences.

Take ownership: “Cultural change starts from the top. Both prior research and stakeholder engagement for this report indicated that workplace change is most effective when driven by senior leadership. Bullying and sexual harassment flourish in workplaces where employees perceive that such conduct is not taken seriously by management.” The report says the profession should, individually and collectively, vocalise the position that bullying and sexual harassment in the profession is unacceptable, and when necessary call out inappropriate conduct. Managing partners, senior barristers, general counsel, judges and other leaders of the profession should, within their workplaces and publicly, deliver this message and take actions available to them to achieve positive change.

Gather data and improve transparency: The IBA says the report was predicated on the need for more and better data on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. “Transparency is crucially important, both as a symbolic step and to aid efforts to address negative workplace behiavour. In several jurisdictions, professional regulators have publicly reiterated the need for legal workplaces to report incidents of bullying and sexual harassment in light of good character obligations and prohibitions on serious misconduct – see, for example, the New Zealand Law Society’s Working Group report.” The profession should, at an individual workplace level, commit greater resources to gathering and analysing data on internal bullying and sexual harassment, and related issues.” The IBA says it will seek to undertake a second version of the survey in 2024 (the New Zealand Law Society has also committed to repeating its Legal Workplace Environment Survey, probably in 2020).

Explore flexible reporting models: Effective reporting systems that empower targets of bullying and sexual harassment to report their experiences are among the most critical elements of a stragety to address such conduct. The profession should urgently consider revising existing reporting models, both at individual workplaces and in external organisations that receive reports (a function often held by professional regulators or law societies and bar associations). Emphasis should be placed on flexibility with multi-faceted reporting procedures. The profession should review and revise existing reporting procedures and seek to implement a flexible approach to encourage targets to report incidents, whatever the severity.

Engage with younger members of the profession: The profession should take all necessary steps to engage with and raise awareness about the issues among younger members of the profession. Workplaces and regulators should consider specific training to form parts of trainees’ entry into the profession; law schools should ensure that workplace bullying and sexual harassment are discussed in class. Workplaces should acknowledge that hierarchies and power imbalances may prevent younger legal professionals from actively advocating on these issues, and find ways to empower those voices. Senior members of the profession should seek to engage with the perspectives of their junior colleagues to develop a greater appreciation of changing attitudes to workplace culture. The IBA will collaborate with its Young Lawyers’ Committee on these issues.

Appreciate the wider context: The profession should acknowledge the relationships between mental health, quality of life, diversity and negative workplace conduct. Individual workplaces should place emphasis on addressing factors that contribute to adverse mental health outcomes, and supporting staff who suffer from mental health challenges. Bar associations and law societies should consider what symbolic and practical steps they can take to improve mental health and quality of life more generally within the profession. Stakeholders should adopt an intersectional approach to addressing bullying and sexual harassment, and promoting diversity, understanding that they are related and cannot be dealt with in an isolated manner.

Maintain momentum: The legal profession should take steps to give a structural basis to efforts addressing bullying and sexual harassment, as a way of ensuring that action continues on these issues in the medium and longer term. Workplaces should consider establishing permanent committees with mandates for maintaining efforts to address bullying and sexual harassment, alongside improving visibility of these issues at senior leadership levels. Bar associations and law societies should take similar action, creating standing working groups and other institutional actors to initiate and implement strategies to eliminate such conduct.

The International Bar Association

The IBA was established in 1947 to give the legal profession a global voice. It has grown from an association made up exclusively of law societies and bar associations, to one that includes individual lawyers and law firms. It has a membership of 80,000 individual lawyers and 190 law societies and bar associations from over 170 countries. The New Zealand Law Society is a member.

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