Bullying in the Legal Profession

November 27, 2018

From the schoolyard to the workplace, bullying is an epidemic. Because mistreatment and abuse of employees can result in legal action and liability, one would think lawyers and law firms would be vigilant in stopping or preventing bullying in their offices. Surveys of workers in the legal profession show otherwise.

Bullies at Work

Although the federal Department of Health and Human Services has made a concerted effort to combat childhood bullying, intimidation and harassment in employment settings remain persistent problems. According to a 2107 survey, 19 percent of American workers report being the victims of bullying at work.

In the legal space, a current survey of 5,000 legal industry workers worldwide (conducted by the International Bar Association) suggests that 43 percent of the respondents have been bullied at work, including one in two women and one in three men. This is more than twice the incident rate in other work environments!

Twenty-five percent of all respondents to the IBA study, including 33 percent of women, also said they were sexually harassed at work. While the #MeToo movement strives to expose and eliminate workplace harassment based on gender, sexual orientation, or other sex-based discrimination, bullying is a broader issue. The IBA’s research provided examples of bullying that included implicit or explicit threats, misuse of power or position, constant unproductive criticism, malicious rumors, being blocked from promotion or training opportunities, unfounded comments about job security, and violence (threatened or actual).

What Causes Bullying in the Legal Profession?

The IBA survey identified several potential contributors to the pervasiveness of bullying in the legal profession, including power imbalances, a lack of reporting, and an overall culture of aggression. The American Bar Association notes that the intrinsically adversarial nature of legal proceedings could also play a role in the sometimes combative nature of legal workplace interactions. Peer-to-peer competition is baked into every step of a lawyer’s journey towards success, from law school to partnerships to client acquisition, even outside litigation practices.

Many lawyers exhibit personality traits that make them more prone to bullying behaviors. According to one study of nearly 2,000 lawyers at large law firms, attorneys are frequently self-critical, temperamental, easily excitable, tense, overly critical, resistant to authority, skeptical of others, and “lousy on interpersonal sensitivity,” coming across as “cold, critical, and argumentative.” Without effective management and strategies to build and maintain healthy interpersonal relations, a law firm populated by lawyers with these personality traits could easily become toxic.

Combatting Bullies in the Legal Workplace

Bullying causes harmful outcomes in any workplace, both on the individuals involved and the company as a whole. These effects can be physical, psychological, and economic. The adverse effects of workplace bullying on victims’ psychological health can range from mild anxiety and depression to severe posttraumatic stress symptoms (which may qualify as job-related compensable disabilities).

Bullying also has a detrimental impact on the organization, leading to a decrease in overall employee job satisfaction, organizational commitment, lost productivity, and increased absenteeism. The effects of personal psychological distress and decreased employee satisfaction can lead to higher attrition rates and correlated increased costs. Clients (and even support staff) may follow lawyers who leave to join other firms or hang out their own shingles, multiplying the costs of their departures.

Changing the culture of bullying in an organization, however, is easier said than done. Although many victims of bullying behavior are reluctant to file a report or other formal action, doing so may be one way to change the overall culture of acceptance of these behaviors. There are many avenues available to do so.

Bullying within a legal department or law firm can be reported to HR or managing partners. It may be appropriate to report bullying between attorneys in a litigation situation (like a deposition) or judicial bullying (inappropriate behavior by a judge outside of his or her role in litigation) to a state’s legal ethics body.

Legal Bullying as a Worldwide Issue

As reflected in the IBA survey and by numerous international bar associations and professional groups, the problem of bullying in the legal profession is an international issue (even affecting the famously pleasant Canadians). Some countries and jurisdictions, like areas of Australia, have implemented suggested code-of-conduct and professionalism guidelines that specifically address bullying behaviors.

Successfully combating this industry-wide global problem will likely involve a multi-pronged approach, but the potential payoffs are clear – both economically and for the sustainability of the legal profession.

(*Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.)