Sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the legal profession - and government legal workplaces are worse offenders than law firms, the largest international survey of the phenomenon reveals today.

‘US Too?’, a global study led by the International Bar Association (IBA), found that a third of women lawyers have been sexually harassed at work, while half of women and a third of men have faced bullying. UK respondents reported higher rates of sexual harassment and bullying than many other European countries, including France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Some 7,000 legal professionals from 135 countries responded to the IBA’s survey.

Government legal workplaces were reported to have the highest prevalence of bullying, with almost 70% of respondents recording aggressive or uncivil behaviour. Private practice had the lowest rate of bullying, 39%, while private sector in-house workplaces and barristers’ chambers reported around 47%.

The incidents of bullying and sexual harassmentare not solely historical: 38% of bullying cases and 26% of sexual harassment cases occurred a year or less before the survey was completed.

According to the survey, perpetrators of this kind of behaviour have gone largely unpunished, with three quarters of sexual harassment cases and almost 60% of bullying cases never being reported.

The effect on victims has been profound, however. More than half of bullied respondents have left, or are considering leaving, their workplace, and one in seven bullied respondents have left, or are thinking of leaving, the legal profession entirely.

The report acknowledges that tackling the issue may be difficult. While the IBA proposes 10 steps, including training and the revision of policies and standards, the results of the survey also suggest that such measures are not having the desired impact. Respondents at workplaces with policies and training in place are just as likely to be bullied or sexually harassed as those at workplaces without.

The survey found that younger legal professionals are disproportionately impacted by bullying behaviour and line managers and supervisors are the most frequent perpetrators, followed by other senior colleagues.

Horacio Bernardes Neto, IBA president, said: ‘It is deeply shameful that our profession, predicated on the highest ethical standards, is rife with such negative workplace behaviours.’

Mark Ellis, executive director, added: ‘The legal profession has been called upon regularly to advise other industries on bullying and sexual harassment. However, our ability to drive broader change is undermined if our own house is not in order.’

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, echoed the message, saying: ’Businesses, including law firms, should examine their workplace culture and procedures for dealing with complaints. Just as anyone is protected by the law, they should also be protected by employers.’

Speaking at the publication of the report, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws (Helena Kennedy QC), director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, said: ‘This is now the global legal profession listening to the voices of those who say we haven’t got it completely right. It is about calling out and I want men to be calling it out. Too often it is falling to us women. We need it to be coming from the men who are our colleagues.

‘It is the start of something much bigger. We need to get this right.’