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  • Mon, 25, Jun, 2018 - 5:00:AM

A student’s perspective on sexual assault in law firms

How is this happening? Do I even want to do this anymore? As a female law student, revelations of sexual assault in legal workplaces throughout New Zealand have hit pretty hard. When the first Newsroom investigation broke, I was shocked. Maybe that was naive. Or maybe it's not normal for young women to expect that sexual assault is prevalent in the industry they hope to enter.

Once the word spread, there was a noticeable shift in attitude. “I’m a law student,” went from inducing polite nods to spurring an interrogation about my life choices and whether I really wanted to deal with ‘all that’. The days of law being seen as safe and respectable career path are over.

Law school involves a lot of planning ahead. Everyone is thinking, what am I going to do over summer? What about when I graduate? What are my next steps and who can I talk to about them? A lot of the law degree focuses on that future career, so naturally, that’s what we think about. Those plans should be exciting. They should not be tainted with a sense of horror at what might happen in that future.

The reality is that the #MeToo revelations are actually nothing new. This is how the culture always has been. The fact that we’re hearing about it is good; it means people are less afraid to come forward. That doesn’t make it easier to process how widespread the problem is. Thirty-three per cent of female lawyers have been sexually harassed in their working life. That’s the kind of statistic that makes me want to turn and run. The lack of appropriate response to the blatantly obvious problem has aggravated those fears.

A working group and a voluntary task force (i.e. an unpaid group of lawyers) from the Law Society are meant to solve the problem. In my view, it's kind of a kick in the face. I'm concerned about this. My friends are concerned about this. We're about to enter a profession that needs a serious cultural shift, but solving that widespread sexual harassment problem is apparently not deserving of adequate funding. Neither of those groups, whether they’re described as a working group or a task force, promise real action or change. They are meant to review the current processes and structures to determine whether change is needed.

My issue with that approach: there is a problem. Undeniably. The systems in place are clearly not good enough. To put it in legalese, res ipsa loquitur. The fact that the problem of unreported sexual assault has occurred shows that the systems are defective. Closer analysis of that problem is great, but the process of change can and should start right now. Deferring the solution doesn’t recognise that the problem is urgent and currently harmful.

Sunlight might be the best disinfectant, but more is needed. We’re not in darkness or silence anymore, but leaving it at that is not enough to solve a problem that goes to the very heart of how law firms are structured. At this point, when the problem is so prevalent that 83 per cent of lawyers have witnessed bullying or harassment, a significant response is required. One that provides results. In my opinion, a voluntary task force falls short of that standard.

Women shouldn’t have to ‘toughen up’ or attend resilience training in order to survive a damaging environment. That environment should not exist in the first place. The problem is not the victims or their unwillingness to talk to the Law Society. In my view, it’s the fact that the established structures do not include places where they feel safe to talk. You don’t need to wait for the results of a survey or a task force to tell you that.

The delayed response means that there is no reassurance or guarantee that the culture is going to change in the few years it will take for my friends and I to enter the profession. Our mentors and teachers are not telling us, “It’ll be okay”. No one can say that in good faith. We’re entering an industry that is dangerous and unapologetic about that danger.

Avoiding careers because of the risk of sexual assault is a decision that young women make. And, in my view, the Law Society is doing little to reassure us that law is a ‘safe’ choice. Or that it’s changed at all. In my opinion, their blasé response to the results of the survey and the recent revelations is insulting. I believe that it diminishes the experiences of all those who have spoken out and promises more of the same for those of us who have not yet started our legal careers.

Obviously, I am on the back foot here. I have zero power over a profession of which I'm not yet a member. But I want to see a change. This has been an awful wake-up call to everyone in my position. We're putting in a lot of work to be admitted into a profession that is looking worse and worse for us by the day.

I want to work in law. But I also want a job where I feel safe and respected. That shouldn't be too much to ask. 

TAGGED IN

  • Law /
  • Sexual Assault /
  • #MeToo /
  • University /
  • Opinion /
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Erin
Gourley

Regular Contributor All Articles