#MeToo and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Law

By Gail L. Gatchalian, Q.C.

Sexual harassment is rife in legal workplaces. But how can we stop it?

This year, the International Bar Association released “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession,” the largest ever global survey on bullying and harassment in the legal profession. The IBA survey heard from almost 7,000 respondents from 135 countries. Some of the findings include the following:

  • 1 in 3 female respondents have been sexually harassed at work;
  • Sexual harassment victims do not report in 75% of cases;
  • Principal reasons for not reporting include the status of the perpetrator and fear of repercussions; and
  • Individuals at workplaces with policies and training were just as likely to be bullied or sexually harassed as those at workplaces without policies and training

The #MeToo movement has not yet hit Canadian legal workplaces, but it is likely coming.

For example, the large New Zealand law firm Russell McVeagh was the subject of a public independent review because of allegations that male lawyers sexually harassed five female summer clerks. The review found a “work hard, play hard” culture involving excessive drinking, sexually inappropriate behaviour, poor management, and a culture of bullying and fear of speaking out, as well as a phenomenon of women lawyers leaving before partnership. Sound familiar? This could describe many Canadian legal workplaces.

Legal regulators are preparing for what is likely to be an increase in complaints about sexual harassment on the part of lawyers.

In its most recent report, the Ontario Discrimination and Harassment Counsel program—which provides services to individuals who have concerns or complaints about discrimination or harassment by lawyers or paralegals licensed in Ontario—described some of the complaints it had received about workplace sexual misconduct by lawyers:

  [S]exual harassment, including verbal harassment; sexually explicit harassment and comments; persistent unwanted contact outside of work, including one conviction for criminal stalking; sexual advances and persistent pressuring of complainant(s) for sexual relationships; disparaging women in front of colleagues; physical sexual harassment; and the employer’s failure to respond appropriately when complaints of harassment were raised.

The Canadian Bar Association has been working to address sexual harassment in legal workplaces.

In 2015, the CBA passed a resolution on Sexual Harassment in Canadian Workplaces, resolving that the CBA “urge federal, provincial and territorial governments, Canadian law firms and other Canadian workplaces take active steps to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault in their workplaces; and create and provide accessible, safe and non-threatening reporting channels for sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

However, the question remains: If workplaces that have sexual harassment policies are just as likely as workplaces without such policies to have sexual harassment (as the IBA survey found), what is the best approach to redressing systematic problems relating to sexual harassment in law firms?

What seems clear is that #MeToo is about so much more than having policies in place. It’s about ensuring people care about those policies, and about ensuring they mean something when contravened. It’s about changing the culture, in a profession that has historically been slow to adapt to change.

In 2017, the CBA National Women’s Forum released a free podcast called “Not Just a Bystander,” which addresses why sexual assault and sexual harassment happen in the first place, what sexual assault and sexual harassment mean, legally, and what can we as lawyers can do to fix this problem.

The Nova Scotia Branch of the CBA formed a Sexual Harassment Work Group in 2018 to focus on the development of bystander intervention training to address sexual harassment in legal workplaces. Their goal is to create culture change, to encourage everyone in the workplace to take on the responsibility of addressing sexual harassment, and to take the burden off victims of sexual harassment, who, for understandable reasons, are reluctant to formally complain.

The IBA report encourages the profession to create networks to discuss the issues of bullying and sexual harassment and to share best practices and insights. If you have ideas to share with me, or would like to know more about my work in this area, I would love to hear from you.

GAIL L. GATCHALIAN, Q.C., is a partner at Pink Larkin's Halifax office, where she practices employment, human rights, labour and constitutional law. She is a past chair of the CBA National Labour & Employment Law Section, and is the Past President of the CBA Nova Scotia Branch.