Harassment and bullying within law firms -- while still by no means common -- seems to be rising.

The problem takes many forms, and may take place when a firm's managers are not looking -- or before their eyes.But when does office banter become insulting and offensive, and at what point does laddism turn into sexism? Are firms capable of handling it when it does become a problem?Many who report harassment are trainees and the problem may be their marked reluctance to speak out, relying on confidential helplines for support.It seems that today's trainees differ from yesterday's articled clerks in that they just cannot be seen to be causing trouble.

Many feel they have been left to sink or swim by the very principals who should be supporting them and they cannot be seen to be floundering.

Jobs are no longer guaranteed and there is a fear of dropping down the promotion ladder.

They fear that they will be seen as psychologically 'shaky' and inadequate.Ten per cent of calls to the Trainee Solicitors Group helpline in the past year concerned bullying and harassment.

Michelle Hoffman, the group's education officer, has received calls from trainees who feel they are in a power struggle with seniors who may, she suggests, feel threatened themselves.In several recent calls, trainees felt they had witnessed 'illegal activity' within their firms, and one caller who involved the police has received harassing telephone calls from someone he believes works in his office.

No callers were prepared to name their firms or make an official complaint for fear of reprisals.Solcare, the solicitors' support group, receive 'plenty of calls' about unreasonable behaviour by seniors.

Around 10% of calls are from trainees who feel 'picked on' and feel anxious that they are doing the work of a qualified solicitor while being inadequately supervised.

They are fobbed off with the old legal chestnut; trainees who cannot 'take the heat' should not be in the legal 'kitchen'.

So incidents of harassment and bullying, which seem not as unusual as perceived, often go unreported.

There is a smoke screen of anxiety in broadcasting events; a fear of being passed over for promotion at best, and of complete ostracism at worst.Clio Demetriades of Legal Opportunities, a legal recruitment consultancy, is concerned by what she sees as a growing trend.

She comes across instances of workplace bullying and she considers this more common than sexual harassment.

Victims are usually women.'It is confidence-shattering,' she says.

'Things can get so bad that people feel they should change jobs but feel that all avenues are closing to them.' In extreme cases, victims feel 'tainted' and the only solution they can think of is to move out of the area and try to make a new start.

They may feel incapable of speaking up and begin to mistrust those around them.But as confidence begins to ebb, it becomes harder and harder to change jobs because they become nervous and may underachieve at interview.

They start to feel that 'anyone could be the enemy'.

It is clearly a sinister situation in which to find oneself.

Office bullying covers a broad spectrum activities, from being ignored to being made the butt of male colleagues' jokes.

'People feel they can't do anything right; holes are constantly found in their work,' she says.Ms Demetriades finds that victims of bullying may become so lacking in confidence that they apply for jobs that are beneath them.

This becomes a vicious circle and prospective employers become suspicious.

It is clear that self-esteem has become low, eye contact may be poor and job seekers cannot fully explain to prospective employers the reasons for their sudden desire for a 'new start'.O ne telling example may be that of 'Sarah', a one-year qualified solicitor who declines to use her real name.

She considers that her slightly more senior female colleague has a harassing attitude towards her and is prepared to sabotage her work at any opportunity.

Sarah feels this is a case of 'professional jealousy' believes this treatment to be a kind of 'woman-to-woman' resentment.'She seems to take every opportunity to make me look inefficient.

She will refuse to sign my post if I am out of the office.

She will ensure that my tapes are "leapfrogged", in order that hers are typed up first, making her look more efficient.

She will rush through her work in the morning with her door closed, then ostentatiously sit, reading a book in the afternoon, clearly attempting to give the message that there is not enough work for two of us.

It is all so petty and sad.'She engages in office banter, but never discusses law with me; I think she is worried that I will acquire more legal knowledge than she has.

I feel it is a scheme to oust me.

I used to consider it all very silly, but it has become more and more insidious.

Law books and magazines mysteriously disappear from my room.

On my return from holiday, I found my post had been opened by her and hidden in a drawer.

The final straw is that I have just found my letters on our shared computer have been erased.

I'm not sure how much further this will go.'Sarah feels the only redeeming feature in her story is that her colleague is not required to supervise her work.

This is an enormous relief to her as things could have been even worse.Discrimination is also a big problem.

The recent Zaiwalla case, and the size of the award, will surely cause reverberations of anxiety within the legal world.

In this case, a paralegal won a ground-breaking £45,000 in damages after less than three months' work with the four-partner London commercial firm.Zaiwalla & Co was ordered to compensate Jyoti Walia following a case brought against it for lost earnings, lost future earnings, injury to feelings and aggravated damages.

She complained that the firm failed to give her adequate work to assess her for a training contract and that it had sexually discriminated against her.Zaiwallas is appealing against the decision.

It refutes the accusation, saying that it has employed two female trainees since Ms Walia left.

Ms Walia's solicitor, James Camody of Steele & Co, said after the finding: 'The decision sends a clear message to firms that discriminatory behaviour against paralegals or trainees is not acceptable.'It remains to be asked what is being done to address workplace harassment and discrimination.

In the legal profession' new flatter management structure, discretion is hard to guarantee -- and it may be unsafe to complain.However, of four leading firms interviewed, not one head of human resources admitted to having any complaints.

They all have procedures in place to deal with sexism, harassment and so on, but as one manager said: 'They never need to see the light of day.'So, what happens to complaints? Possibly in the larger, more enlightened firms, there is an attempt to deal with them at source.

For example, Richard Launchbury, head of administrative services at City firm Dechert, believes that the accessibility of trainees to the firm's in-house director of training and to partners may be the key to dealing with workplace harassment.He says: 'No one wants to be seen as a big bully .



our partners' average age is 43 and they tend to have a more modern view of workplace relationships.

Partner s' doors are always open.'The issue seems to centre on the problem of what happens when people show their vulnerability.

There is little place for such feelings within the macho stance of the law.

To complain of workplace bullying would be to exhibit an anxiety which would fly in the face of the unrealistic expectations which have been set by legal practitioners for themselves.