No law firm or legal department knows for sure if it has done ‘enough’ to prevent sexual harassment. Trailing other sectors, the ‘#MeToo’ movement seemed to reach the legal profession in mid-2017. The period since has seen some dramatic departures from law firms following allegations that would have seemed incredible a short time ago.
We can say with confidence that in a growing number of cases, a claim of sexual harassment has proved more dangerous for the career of an alleged perpetrator than for the person who has complained. As Kingsley Napley partner Iain Miller reflects in this week’s feature, the option of a ‘soft landing’, whereby both parties are quietly eased out after a complaint is dismissed is no longer a surefire option for reputation-conscious firms. Not least, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal have gained both interest and competency in these cases.
In all this, the profession should be trying to answer some big questions. First, what constitutes a fair process and a fair hearing when an allegation is made? Not least, there should be a close eye on the welfare of both parties. The death at the end of 2018 of a law firm partner, reportedly following two allegations, is a reminder of this. Relative speed of resolution is also important, especially where noticeable steps have been taken to keep the parties separate.
A second big question relates to workplace culture. Can ‘tone for the top’ be differentiated form ‘virtue signaling’? If internal communications and training have happened, has that translated into people behaving differently?
Some responses to the prominence sexual harassment has achieved in the legal sector seem misplaced. US-style ‘romance clauses’, whereby partners and staff should notify the firm’s HR department of a relationship, seem to miss the point – placing romance on the same arc as unwanted attention and assault is an odd message to send.
The headlines of the past 18 months give the impression that there are limitless serious stories to come out. That is not the case. But we are emerging from decades of very serious allegations being dealt with in a flawed way. The signs are that is beginning to change.