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Halting Harassment in Law Firms

June 6, 2008

Harassment, particularly sexual harassment, is perceived as a pervasive problem in the corporate workplace. Law firms, however, are by no means immune from such incidents.  On the contrary, sexual harassment complaints involving law firms are relatively common. One of the most prominent cases involved one of the world’s largest and best law firms.  A jury awarded over $7 million to a legal secretary for the conduct of one of the firm’s partners.

Some have theorized that sexual harassment, either in the form of affecting an employee’s working conditions or creating a hostile environment, is an issue in the legal workplace because of the nature of the practice. Lawyers interact continuously with their secretaries and paralegals. Younger associates spending long and late hours with older partners.  Oftentimes, attorneys spend more time with their co-workers than their own families.

Beyond the typical sexual harassment case of a man harassing a woman, courts have permitted actions of “reverse” sex harassment (an action by a man against a woman).  There have even been actions of same sex harassment against large law firms.

Young lawyers need to be particularly wary, and not just from the standpoint of being a potential “victim.”  Even the starting first year attorney is technically a “supervisor” of a secretary and possibly a paralegal.  And harassment can happen at all levels.

Fortunately, many companies and law firms have instituted anti-harassment classes or seminars, such as the one I attended for my law firm this past week, for their employees.  These classes focus primarily on sex harassment but also include discussions of other prohibited discrimination of protected classes such as age, disability, race, religion and national origin.  What people need to be aware of is that harassing or discriminatory conditions can occur with not just blatant conduct, such as inappropriate contact.  Simple actions in the workplace such as e-mail forwards with graphic content, offensive jokes or even honest and accurate commentary on certain issues can and have been grounds for harassment.

We, as young lawyers, have a duty to prevent inappropriate conduct in the workplace.  It all starts with ourselves.  We should be careful in how we act and interact and think about how our actions could impact others.  After all, lawyers should know better than anyone that it’s not too much trouble to file a lawsuit, and the possibilities of litigation are endless.

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