A recent article in The Toronto Star draws attention to a widespread problem that should concern every lawyer in our profession. It describes the growing number of reports to the Discrimination and Harassment Counsel of the Law Society of Ontario by articling students who describe the firms that employ them as “abusive workplaces.” Specific examples include “Verbal threats and humiliation. Working more than 100 hours a week. Not being properly paid.”
These problems are not restricted to Ontario, nor are articling students the only victims of this kind of mistreatment. Most of us know junior lawyers and staff who experience disrespect from senior lawyers in their firms. In fact, The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, about which I have written recently, makes it clear that for many, working in a law firm is nothing short of intolerable.
I appreciate that the offensive behavior is not representative of the average lawyer, nor indeed of most lawyers, but only a small minority. No matter how few the perpetrators, there is no excuse for their behavior in law firms – nor for the tolerance of it by law-firm leadership.
It is my conviction that at all firms have a duty to keep an eye out for abusive behavior and to keep in line any partners who may be guilty of acting toward any employees in a way that brings disrepute to our profession.
One of the reasons I care so much about this issue (beyond loving and respecting the legal profession, of which I have been a proud member for 45 years) is the growing trend among lawyers toward alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and other mental disorders or illnesses associated with trauma and stress.
So my message is this: if you have a bully in your midst with the power to hurt junior lawyers and staff, stand up and put a stop to it.
Dismissing an Abusive Lawyer Does Not Mean Financial Loss
In larger firms, unfortunately, those guilty of the worst conduct are often among the top rainmakers and billers. Again, do not interpret this to mean that I believe that negative behaviour is typical of all rainmakers and top billers. I am saying that those few who seem to be most guilty of unseemly behavior are often those with a great deal of power – and power in a law firm is often obtained from outstanding performance in the area of billing and attracting new clients.
For those who fear losing income by dismissing an abusive partner, I have good news for you. In the cases I am aware of where perpetrators have left a firm – either of their own volition or because they were asked to leave – the firms always report that they were able after a reasonable period of time to make up the lost income. Even in one case where the perpetrator had billings of $10 million, the team of which he was a member reported that they made up for those lost billings within a year of his leaving – and that following his departure, all involved had a spring in their steps that had been absent for many years because of him.
A message to victims: Do not suffer in silence. I appreciate that you may fear dire consequences by reporting within a firm that does not have the proper mechanisms for receiving such information in a trusted, confidential manner. You also have the option to report to the governing body in your jurisdiction. In addition, should you experience physical or psychological effects, you should seek medical attention. Many courageous members of the legal profession have reported that their choice to be open about their problems and get help was a life-saving decision. – GAR
I am interested to know your thoughts on this topic or any other relating to the law, either in the comments section below, or directly via email.