The International Bar Association’s May 2019 report 'Us Too' showed what many of us suspected – that sadly, there is a widespread culture of bullying and harassment in parts of the legal profession.

Emma Richardson

Emma Richardson

The report concluded that around one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied at work and one in three female respondents and one in 14 male respondents had been sexually harassed.

The then president of the Law Society, Christina Blacklaws, commented: 'Just as anyone is protected by the law, they should also be protected by employers - law firms included - which have a duty of care to their employees, contractors, clients and visitors.'

Since then Lewis Silkin have seen a marked increase in the number of clients seeking advice on bullying and harassment complaints which may indicate that individuals are feeling more confident in speaking up. Yet, working arrangements during the current pandemic mean many are feeling isolated and under huge amounts of pressure, whether due to caring responsibilities, family illness or bereavement, loneliness, workload or job security concerns.

These diverse pressures can result in more negative interactions between colleagues. Partners, managers and those with longer service may sometimes assert their authority and influence in a more direct, impatient, bullying, distrustful and uncaring manner. Team members may no longer have the emotional energy to signal when they are unhappy. Even if they are having regular video calls with a partner or supervising lawyer, it can be much harder to detect mood and body language via video.

This might mean that one impact of lockdown is that individuals are growing more fearful or less able to raise complaints regarding perceived poor treatment. We know that senior partners and HR are doing their best to lead firms through the pandemic, but leading us back to what? A profession that has already acknowledged it has a widespread problem within its culture?

While there may also be other pressing matters to attend to, shifting your law firm’s culture to one that is more supportive, trusting, caring and kind must be a priority as we face redefined ways of working. With agile and remote working here to stay, firms need to take a leadership approach that will enable their geographically dispersed workforces to thrive.

There are two aspects which need to be in place to shift a firm’s culture. Firstly, a clear strategy and consistent messaging within the partnership that is cascaded through the firm. Secondly, role-modelling the right behaviours and making clear the consequences for those who do not live the organisation’s values. Trust and transparency must set the cultural tone.

What action can law firms take to build this trust? A positive first step is to set up an easily accessible pathway for people to raise concerns at the earliest possible stage, allowing issues to surface and be dealt with quickly.

In 2018, the Guardians programme was conceived by The Old Vic and co-developed with Lewis Silkin in response to the investigation into Kevin Spacey’s conduct while he was the theatre’s artistic director.

Lewis Silkin worked with the Old Vic’s management to create a scheme providing a supportive information resource for staff, designed to help them resolve problems they experience at work in a manner consistent with the organisation’s values.

The scheme has been embraced by more than 100 organisations to date, across all sectors.

The Guardians programme is a simple way of achieving two difficult things:

  • Disseminating and maintaining your desired culture across all areas and locations of the business.
  • Empowering staff with concerns to make well-informed and appropriate choices regarding escalation of issues, no matter who is involved.

A Guardian is a trained member of staff who helps to ensure a consistent understanding of culture throughout the organisation, acting as a sounding board for colleagues who have something that they might want to share but are unsure about the best way of doing so.

The programme is designed to help an organisation go further in its commitment to creating a safe and secure working environment for all. They offer a peer-to-peer information resources for colleagues who have questions or concerns about behaviour or the culture at work, provided in an empathetic and confidential context.

Guardians, in their role, do not act as part of the official management of the firm. We typically do not expect Guardians to be partners, but rather a mix of lawyers and business services staff who are approachable, sympathetic and trusted.

Guardians listen carefully to the individual and provide neutral information on issues discussed with them. They are a 'living library' of information concerning:

  • The culture and values of the organisation.
  • Escalation methods, such as grievances, peer-to-peer discussions, line-manager engagement and whistleblowing.
  • Support services and benefits offered by their employer, such as Employee Assistance Programmes, counselling and mentoring - even help with debt management.

Guardians respect and maintain absolute confidentiality over issues raised with them, except in cases in which the matter might involve a criminal offence. Their remit is not to call out inappropriate practice, and they do not intervene in situations or try to fix problems. Guardians only advise colleagues about actions they can take themselves, if they wish to, while modelling, promoting and upholding the organisation’s values.

At a time when the legal profession needs a fundamental change in how it cares for the wellbeing of its lawyers, the Guardians Programme offers an important first step in shifting both the perception and the reality of a law firm’s culture.


For further information please contact


Emma Richardson, Worksphere Director at Lewis Silkin LLP