11:36, May 15 196 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-15 11:36:04
'I was sworn at and told I was useless': law's problem with bullying at work

Peter Francis*, a solicitor at a commercial law firm, was bullied by his boss during his two-year traineeship. He was forced to work 15-hour days on a salary of less than £20,000, overloaded with work and “bollocked” regularly. “I was shouted at, belittled, sworn at, told I was useless, told I was a terrible trainee, and there was no point me being in law,” he says. “That’s just how it is.”

Bullying is “rife” in the legal profession, according to a survey of almost 7,000 lawyers released today by the International Bar Association (IBA). The IBA defines workplace bullying as “exposure to aggressive behaviour or incivility” by bosses or colleagues. Bullies may ridicule, insult, threaten, exclude or undermine targets. They might also misuse their position, or deliberately give you too much or too little work.

Both women and men are affected. Bullying impacts half of all women lawyers globally and one in three male lawyers, according to the IBA. On top of that, UK legal mental health charity LawCare said calls about bullying and harassment nearly doubled last year.

Isabelle Fearne, a solicitor at a medium-sized firm in Scotland who has previously been bullied, says the problem is particularly bad for trainees considered to be at the “bottom of the heap”. Once, for example, Fearne missed a colleague’s leaving do because her boss deliberately gave her a time-consuming question to research at 4pm on a Friday. When she later told him the answer he already knew it. “It was a complete waste of my time,” she says.

Another example, Fearne says, is when her boss told her to be in the office an hour before everyone else, but then didn’t show up to let her in. “I had to stand outside waiting. It was a massive power play,” she says. “When he [eventually] got there he pulled me into a room, shut the blinds and barracked me [for using the internet too much]. It was absolute nonsense.” Around that time Fearne considered crashing her car, “just to take a week off”.

Fearne says anyone who is believed to be “a bit different” tends to get picked on. “For example if you’re older, overweight, quiet, or you don’t ski,” she says.

Tom Williams, a recently qualified solicitor working in litigation, believes he was “beasted” because he was older than other trainees. “My boss would give me too much work knowing I wouldn’t be able to do it, then shoot me down for not doing it, then give me more and say ‘do it better this time,’” he says.

Francis was bullied in a similar way. He was told any delay to a £2m project the firm was working on would be entirely his fault. He stayed in the office late to work on it while everyone else went to the Christmas party. “A super-efficient prodigy couldn’t have finished it,” he says. “[It was so late] all the lights were shutting off in a circle around me and I was waving just to keep them on.”

Francis became anxious and depressed. He says he was only getting about four hours sleep a night because of the long hours and verbal abuse. “I thought about getting on any random train, heading off into the sunset and never coming back,” he says.

Aryanne Oade, a chartered psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with victims of bullying, says people who are targeted experience “tumbling self-belief, plummeting self-confidence and increasing self-doubt”. On the other hand, bullies often do it because they feel threatened, jealous, envious, or insecure in their career.

Bullying may be particularly prevalent in law. The profession’s hierarchical power structures and hyper-competitive work culture, along with the adversarial nature of legal work, don’t help, according to Kieran Pender, a legal advisor at the IBA. Junior lawyers are particularly vulnerable because they must complete two-year training contracts before they can qualify, meaning those in senior positions effectively hold power over their futures. Some employers even “dangle the elusive newly qualified position before juniors like a carrot on a stick,” Amy Clowrey, child abuse solicitor and Chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), says.

As a result, Clowrey believes many juniors “put up and shut up”, fearing their dream job will be “pulled from beneath their feet”. The IBA found 57% of victims kept bullying to themselves and 70% of those who did report it felt their workplace’s response was insufficient or negligible.

This was the case for Samantha Williams, a junior lawyer at a small firm, who was bullied by a previous boss who would shout at and intimidate her. “On several occasions I was reduced to tears,” she says. Williams did speak to HR and their response was to offer her counselling to “learn to manage her manager”.

The good news is the “tide is turning” as people increasingly recognise bullying behaviour, says Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare. “Momentum has begun to gather, partly as a result of the #MeToo movement, which really shone a light on negative workplace conduct,” Pender agrees.

Organisations must have policies in place, encourage people to report and then follow through with actions when they do, Rimmer says. Senior lawyers must also be better trained to manage juniors.

For Francis, reporting the issue didn’t help. After one particularly bad “bollocking” his family convinced him to go to HR. During the meeting he was blamed for not telling his boss he had too much work. “All my work came from [him], though, so he already knew how much I had,” Francis says. He wasn’t offered a newly qualified position at the firm when his training contract came to an end, despite all the late nights and hard work he had put in. “I was clearly on a blacklist for having challenged them,” he says, but he was offered a position elsewhere. Francis’ former boss, who he accused of bullying, is now in a more senior role at another firm.

* Some names have been changed to protect interviewees.


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