The International Bar Association has teamed up with a virtual reality company to offer training about sexual harassment and bullying, as lawyers are urged to escalate acts of suspected misconduct to senior management.
The IBA has partnered with Osiris Labs, an ‘immersive training provider’, to create a ‘soft skills simulator’ in which lawyers are presented with different scenarios through a VR headset. For example, a male solicitor may be placed in the position of female employee in an environment that is uncomfortable for her.
Osiris Labs said it had used machine learning to analyse over 2,500 incidents of harassment and bullying in order to create its courses.
Speaking at the IBA’s annual conference, Clare Murray, managing partner of employment specialist CM Murray, said ‘personal fiefdoms’ within law firms can make it difficult to raise complaints.
‘The legal profession is quite feudal in its approach because we have very hierarchical structures. We have associates who are very dependent on the patronage of very powerful partners. And it is quite a secretive profession – secrecy within some firms is the norm,' Murray said.
She added that powerful partners within teams can creates problem ‘because if someone has an issue, they are heavily dependent on the people they are reporting to, and they fear retaliation...Retaliation is even more rife than the original events of harassment and bullying, and that’s where a lot of work needs to be focused.’
Asked about discrepancies between the regulation of solicitors and barristers, Murray praised the Solicitors Regulation Authority for its approach to sexual harassment cases.
‘I think that globally the SRA has been a market leader in the regulatory market. It has stood out in taking a lead in trying to investigate and sanction incidents of sexual harassment. This has cascaded down the profession and is changing behaviours - it’s really getting the attention of law firms and senior management,’ she said.
However, she said lawyers are still prone to ‘overpromise on confidentiality’ and take a ‘localised, siloed approach to harassment and bullying’.
‘Everything has to be moved to escalation so senior management know about the issue,’ she said.
Last year, an IBA survey found that sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the legal profession, with a third of female lawyers saying they had been sexually harassed at work.
Report author Kieran Pender said the IBA is ‘continuing to… prioritise what is still a critically important issue’ and identified a need for better training. The IBA has also partnered with Australia’s College of Law to provide an e-training programme on bullying and harassment.