Uncovering the unacceptable
12 Jun 19
Our self-styled ethical profession has a problem of bullying and harassment. Can it be treated as a question of fitness to practise?
It is a couple of years now since the #MeToo movement made its breakthrough, yet personal accounts, and collective data, showing the extent of the issue of sexual harassment still come to light very regularly.
That applies not least to the legal profession, where the English legal press has carried a number of reports recently of quite senior lawyers being required to leave their firms due to behaviour towards a colleague or colleagues having come to light that is unacceptable, and even criminal.
We know that there is also a widespread problem in Scotland. That was exposed by last year’s Profile of the Profession survey, with nearly one in five solicitors having personal experience of bullying or harassment in the last five years.
It should trouble us that a profession that sets great store by its ethics, and in particular its integrity in looking after its clients’ interests and financial affairs, should be home also to such a deep seated problem. Yet it may equally be true that very often the perpetrators do not properly appreciate that their behaviour is not acceptable, or its effect on those subjected to it. To that effect is our blog of the month (p 6), written by an anonymous junior female solicitor in England who repeatedly suffered at the hands of others, yet writes that she does not believe they were being intentionally hurtful.
Related to this is the issue of unconscious bias, another subject of which awareness is growing, and one which can manifest itself in relation to any protected characteristic within the equality sphere. There have been many calls for training to counter such bias, for those responsible for recruitment, and managers generally.
Should we be taking action at an earlier stage? The more serious cases of bullying and harassment must raise questions about fitness to be admitted to, or to remain on, the roll of solicitors. Could such tendencies be identified at an earlier stage? Would it be feasible for Diploma students to undergo psychometric tests designed to identify unacceptable attitudes, or in any event to be given training against unconscious bias? (I don’t know the answer, but am happy for the issue to be debated in the Journal.)
And could such training be part of the compulsory course for new partners? No doubt that has much to cover already, but could it? Or in any event be given regular slots in the CPD programme?
The Society knows there is a problem to address, and we await to see what it proposes. It seems to me, however, that the issue needs to be tackled on multiple fronts, and wherever possible before it leads to acts that mean another victim in the next set of statistics.