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12 July 2018 at 11:39 BST

Underreporting highlighted as law firms struggle with harassment claims

At least two major law firms face sexual harassment suits, but fear of reprisal leading to underreporting


Dentons and Ogletree are facing sexual harassment lawsuits, from an employee and former employee, respectively. However, many law firm employees do not know how to report misconduct and nor trust their firms to quash it when the perpetrators are superstar lawyers, according to a report from Bloomberg Law. Power dynamics in firms, and lack of adequate checks can cause underreporting of sexual harassment incidents, and personnel may avoid telling their firm due to fear’ or a feeling that nothing will happen’ to the perpetrator, according to Elizabeth Mell, a consultant who conducted a recent member survey for the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA).

Incidents at law firms 

Ms Mell told Bloomberg Law that 77 per cent of ALA’s respondents said sexual harassment has occurred at their firms. Of those noting harassment, 36 per cent knew of incidents involving partners and associates, 54 per cent knew of incidents involving partners and staff, and 30 percent knew of incidents among staff members, Ms Mell said in an email. Seventy-five per cent of the ALA respondents said they had been sexually harassed at some point during their career. Eighty per cent of ALA’s 461 respondents are female. Even if law firms improve their training and discipline, however, the potential for harassment remains whenever stark power imbalances exist among employees. To address the issues, the American Bar Association and California Supreme Court have recently issued instructions outlining law firms’ responsibilities in this area.

Less complaints

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen a decrease in the number of sexual harassment complaints against law offices during the past several years. Totals ranged from a high of 18 in fiscal year 2011 to a low of four in FY 2017. Advisen, a company that tracks insurance data, has revealed data showing lower numbers than might be expected. In the sexual discrimination and harassment category, its data identify 123 ‘large loss events’ for US legal services entities since 1992, with a total of $13.9 million in loss value. However, Advisen note many instances are not on their radar because there been a payout yet. The number of EEOC claims could also be dropping because law firms are starting to handle problems before they escalate.


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