How to Handle Sexual Harassment at Law Firms
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Summary: Sexual harassment is a problem in the legal community, so what can we do to combat it?

Sexual harassment lawsuits cost companies big money and a ton of embarrassment. For instance, just look at what Roger Ailes’ alleged perverse actions did to Fox News. The sexual harassment lawsuit that former TV host Gretchen Carlson filed cost the network $20 million, and it opened the door for other similar allegations. This week, The New York Daily News reported that the state of New York approved a new contract for $270,000 so that law firms can help the state government fight sexual harassment lawsuits, pending and foreseen.  In California, celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and his restaurant companies settled a case brought on by two former servers for an undisclosed amount.


While lawyers are the ones who battle out these scandalous claims in court, attorneys are also susceptible to being harassed at work. It makes sense based on the statistics. According to Forbes, a new survey conducted by Morning Consult found that 45% of female respondents said they experienced unwanted touching and 60% said they’ve been the recipient of unwelcome sexual jokes.

Earlier this year, ABC Australia spoke with several attorneys who shared some of their horror stories.

“I moved into working in a law firm in the most junior role that you could, so basic entry level, and in that role there were … two male lawyers who started making unwanted advances,” a lawyer named “Melissa” said. Melissa said that the two lawyers eventually escalated their advances. They offered to buy her things, tried to kiss and touch her, and made suggestive comments. She said that she reported the behavior to Human Resources, who questioned why she spent time with them alone, not why the men acted the way they did.

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Lawyer Michael Hammer told ABC that the legal profession was highly susceptible to sexual harassment because it was a male-dominated field.

“It is that power imbalance,” Hammer said. “[The legal profession] is still a highly male dominated industry and basically within that power imbalances these ‘protected species’ get away with blue murder.”

Hammer’s firm is one of the top sexual harassment law firms in Australia, and he said that even his company dealt with internal harassment. He said he learned that one of the firm’s lawyers was harassed by another attorney, and the situation was difficult to manage because they couldn’t dump the offender halfway through the case, even after learning of his behavior.

A third attorney, Jenna Vardi, shared her experience with sexual harassment and how predatory behavior starts with comments.

“I had done a seasonal clerkship at a large corporate law firm and a few of us had overheard some of the male lawyers talking about the fresh meat that was coming through and physical appearances and who might be easy prey at a Christmas party,” Vardi said. “[Sexual harassment] will often start with comments that [younger staff] will shrug aside. It will include discussions about their partner, what they are doing on the weekend and suddenly someone is brushing up against them in the office.”

What to do if you are being harassed?

Tom Spiggle, founder of Spiggle Law Firm, told Forbes that there was a series of actions people can do if they’re being sexually harassed at work.

1. Talk to an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. 

Spiggle said that one obstacle women encounter when meeting with Human Resources is that HR either doesn’t take their claim seriously or their interest is to protect the company, not the victim. He said it is best for people who are being harassed at work to consult with an attorney, who will be able to provide advice and keep the conversation confidential.

2. Consider secretly recording your boss.

This bit only works if you live in a one-party state, and Spiggle recommends talking with an attorney first before you actually make any recordings. However, he recommends documenting the harassment because proof is better than just a verbal accusation. Therefore if you live in a two-party state, then at least write down specific instances of harassment and keep emails or other types of proof of suggestive behavior.

3. Check the company handbook to learn how to report sexual harassment. 

Most firms have some type of process in place to handle sexual harassment. However, if your firm does not have an official policy, Spiggle said to report the sexual harassment in writing to Human Resources and management. He said that this may not help your case immediately, and that you may even face retaliation. However, he said that the claim needed to be made with the company first in order to protect you in the future.

4. File your claim with the EEOC.

After informing your company of the complaint, Spiggle said to contact The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC will investigate your claim independently and contact your employer to hopefully resolve the issue. Spiggle said that the EEOC may not end up being able to change your environment in reality, but filing with them will protect your claim if you decide to file a lawsuit in the future.

Photo courtesy of Firedme

How do you think lawyers can combat sexual harassment in the workplace? Let us know in the comments below. 



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