Bullying in the Legal Workplace - Barrett & Farahany

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Bullying in the Legal Workplace

Bullying in the Legal Workplace

Bullying has always been a major issue among school kids. And from old-fashioned schoolyard bullying to cyber-bullying, the topic of bullying in schools has been widely discussed, debated, and in many cases, acted upon in recent years. What is not talked about as much is bullying in the workplace, and in particular, the legal workplace.

You would think that legal professionals, of all people, would be the most vigilant in stopping harassment and bullying in the workplace, but surveys of those who work in this profession indicate that this is not the case.

A survey of all industries by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 19% of American workers report being bullied, while another 19% report having witnessed bullying.  Overall, 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace.

In the legal profession, however, things appear to be far worse. According to an International Bar Association (IBA) survey of more than 5,000 legal workers, 43% of respondents report having been bullied at work – this is more than double the rate of other work environments. Broken down by gender, about one out of every two women have been bullied, and it has happened to one out of every three men.

Here are some other troubling statistics from the IBA survey. In 57% of the cases, the bullying was never reported to anyone, and it is easy to see why. In 71% of the cases that were reported, the response to the incident (according to the victim) was “insufficient or negligible”. 76% of the time, the perpetrator was not sanctioned for their behavior, and in 66% of the cases, the situation remained unchanged or it was exacerbated after the bullying was reported.

Why does Bullying Happen so Much in the Legal Profession?

The IBA survey identified a number of possible factors that may be contributing to the problem of bullying in the legal workplace. One of these factors is the issue we discussed earlier – lack of reporting. If nearly six out of every 10 incidents of bullying are not reported to anyone, how much fear is the perpetrator going to have of getting caught? And if things usually stay the same or get worse after an incident gets reported, then the lack of reporting problem is unlikely to change much – it becomes a vicious and never-ending cycle.

Another common issue within the legal profession that leads to bullying is power imbalances.  This is especially true in larger law firms (commonly known as BigLaw firms). Large firms with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of associates are controlled by senior partners who have been there a long time and bring a lot of money into the firm. This can often look like a “good old boys” network of long-term partners who always look out for each other. And when one of these partners mistreats a younger associate, there is a good chance that no significant action will ever be taken against them.

The IBA assigns some of the blame for the problem of bullying in law firms to the common personality traits lawyers have. The legal profession is adversarial and combative in nature, and this can foster a culture of aggression, and an atmosphere that can quickly become toxic.

Is Workplace Bullying Illegal?

This is a good question, and the answer is, “it depends”. A person who is mean is not necessarily breaking the law, especially if they are mean to everyone. You may have heard someone described as an “equal opportunity offender”. But this person’s behavior might not constitute unlawful harassment.

In order for bullying in the workplace to be illegal, it must be tied to another protected category; such as gender, race, color, national origin, or religion. In other words, an individual is bullied because of being a woman or minority. Bullying could also be tied to other types of civil or criminal wrongdoing, such as assault, in which case appropriate legal action would need to be taken.

What Can Law Firms do to Stop Bullying?

Even without a specific federal law against general bullying in the workplace, law firms and other employers can implement policies and procedures that prohibit this type of behavior and seek to prevent it. Bullying can create very low morale and severely damage productivity within any organization, so it is in everyone’s best interests to do everything possible to stop it.

Some measures employers can take include:

  • Conduct surveys among employees to learn about the specific problems with bullying in their particular workplace;
  • Implement clearly written anti-bullying policies and make sure they are published in every language that is spoken within the organization;
  • Conduct civility training with each member of the organization, and make it clear that no one is exempt from anti-bullying policies;
  • Demonstrate a commitment to the policies that have been implemented by fostering a culture of treating everyone civilly from the top down;
  • Implement clear, straightforward, and understandable reporting procedures, so everyone knows where and how to report incidents of bullying;
  • Be sure that the reporting procedures are set up in a way that maintains the confidentiality of those who report being bullied or having witnessed it happening, and that those reporting these incidents are protected from retaliation.

Have you Been Bullied in the Workplace? Find Out your Legal Rights

If you have experienced bullying in a law firm or any other type of workplace, this could constitute illegal harassment. And if this has happened to you, you do not have to continue putting up with it. There are potential legal recourses available, which may include filing a harassment lawsuit against your employer.

If you are in Alabama, call attorney Kira Fonteneau for skilled legal guidance. Kira will go over your situation and advise you of your legal rights and options, so you can make the most informed decision on what your next steps should be. To schedule your free consultation with attorney Fonteneau, call our office today at (404) 383-5720 or message us through our web contact form.

Kira Fonteneau
Kira Fonteneau

Partner and Managing Lead Attorney of the Alabama Trial Practice Group at Barrett & Farahany, is a dedicated advocate for employees. With a passion for employment law, she strives to empower workers and challenge the notion that employers can act with impunity. Kira's personal experiences fuel her empathy and drive for justice. With a background as a public defender and extensive knowledge of discrimination cases from representing employers, she brings a well-rounded perspective to her practice. Recognized for her outstanding work, Kira has received numerous awards and serves on various legal boards and associations.

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