BigLaw Bias & Harassment: Lawyers In Their Own Words

Law360 (June 22, 2018, 10:23 AM EDT) -- Law360's annual Glass Ceiling Report and Diversity Snapshot again show little progress for women and minorities in private practice, who often face challenges in the workplace their white male counterparts don't.

From a lack of mentorship to a culture that can subtly shut out women and people of color, attorneys we spoke with for these series offered a range of insights into why women and minorities aren't better represented in law firms. Many didn't feel comfortable, however, going on the record about discrimination and harassment they had experienced because of professional repercussions.

A recent Law360 survey gave attorneys a chance to tell their stories anonymously. Some respondents described disturbing details of the hurdles they've faced on account of their gender or race.

We sent questions to the more than 1 million legal and business professionals who receive Law360 daily, and we collected more than 1,350 anonymous responses. The full results, which also touch on lawyers' financial security and job satisfaction, will be released later this summer.

Nearly one-third of the women who responded said they personally experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job at some point in their careers. Over 57 percent also reported that they had experienced gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, 9 percent of respondents reported racial discrimination on the job. (Our survey did not collect data on the race of all survey respondents.)

While white men remain ahead in the legal industry, some people who responded to the survey and identified themselves as white men said that they faced racial and gender bias at work. 

Most of the attorneys who said they experienced discrimination or harassment also said they did not report it to human resources or a supervisor. Experts say the lack of communication and trust common among law firms can allow these issues to continue to fester.

Women and minorities who belong to the National Association of Women Lawyers often complain that they're just plain exhausted, said Jenny Waters, the group's executive director. They're expected keep up with the demands of a stressful career, she said, while trying to clear all of the other hurdles placed in their paths.

Women are expected to perform at a high level, like developing litigation strategies or cutting major deals, all while fending off sexual advances or slights from clients and senior partners, she said. They'd rather just be able to do their jobs.

"Some of the women choosing to leave the profession are leaving because they don't want to fight anymore and they're tired," Waters said.

With attorneys hesitant to speak out on what takes place behind closed doors at their firms, sharing the experiences of readers in their own words could shed light on what might be driving some women and minorities from their ranks.

Here is what they said.

Many women said they've faced sexual harassment:

"Told I could not wear pants to work when offered a job at a firm. Being grabbed, rubbed against and looking down my blouse by superior and judge."
—Sole practitioner.

"As a young lawyer, a senior partner asked for sexual favors and an institutional client of the firm asked that its matters be staffed only with male lawyers."
—Equity partner at a private firm.

"At old firm (large firm) there was a huge rainmaker who was a known harasser. He commented that I had 'sexy legs' when I was a second-year associate. I called him out and he never worked with me again. I found other people to work with."
—Of counsel at a private firm.

"A supervisor told me that if I didn’t sleep with him, I wouldn’t get a particular assignment that I wanted."
—Sole practitioner.

"Several older male attorneys have advised me that they don't believe a woman should be practicing law. At Bar functions, drunk men are often very inappropriate in making sexual advances."
—Equity partner at a private firm.

"The partner occupied the office next to mine. He watched porn many days a week with his door open. I complained to another male partner and the offender was told to simply shut his door. Then I was harassed by the offender."
—Associate at a private firm.

Many women said they've faced gender bias:

"As a new associate, I was sent on a trip with one of the firm's biggest clients who had expressed a personal interest in me and when I asked (begged) not to be placed in this situation, I was told I was a big girl and could say no. Annual salary decreased."
—Nonequity partner at a private firm.

"I was told I needed to learn to be 'sweet, smile more, and wear makeup.' I was told that I couldn't do a particular type of law because I was a woman. I was reprimanded for taking time off to stay with a hospitalized child. Only male (attorneys) were promoted."
—Government lawyer.

Many lawyers said they've experienced racial discrimination:

"Previous job at a private law firm I experienced racial discrimination including racial slurs."
—Government lawyer.

"Lack of work opportunities and mentorship."
—Associate at a private firm.

Including some who identified as white:

"I interviewed with a state attorney and was advised that I could not be hired because the office did not need any more 'white prosecutors.'"
—Nonequity partner at a private firm.

"Lately while working I have been shouted down, not listened to, or ignored for the stated reason that I am a white male and my input is therefore tainted or invalid."
—Equity partner at a private firm.

"As a white male, I have been excluded from consideration for work by in-house clients because of my sex and race."
—Equity partner at a private firm.

Several women said they've experienced both race and gender bias:

"My first day on the job, the receptionist directed me to the mailroom. She looked at me (in my nice gray suit) and somehow assumed I was a mail clerk, not an attorney. Also, there's a male of counsel who never looks [at] me when he speaks."
—Associate at a private firm.

"Old firm, not invited to events that white male associates were invited to, at my old firm not my current job. A partner asked me what color my nipples were, told blow job jokes, tried to hold my hand over lunch, said he wanted to spank my ass, etc."
—Government lawyer.

Women described career setbacks after having children:

"I feel the firm is more likely to promote white males in some offices than females. Also, I took a pregnancy leave two years ago, and this negatively impacted my seniority (put me a year behind to make shareholder); I do not think that is okay."
—Associate at a private firm.

"At my first firm, I was passed over for nonequity partner when two male colleagues (hired on the exact same day as me) were elevated to nonequity partner because I had taken my FMLA leave when I gave birth to my oldest son."
—Associate at a private firm.

Some men said they've seen women harassed or experienced harassment themselves:

"Often encountered situations in which a particular senior partner was hostile toward women. He's a rainmaker, so nothing happens."
—Associate at a private firm.

"1) Believe I was told to find other employment because I did not respond to sexual advances at first firm. 2) At another government agency I was frozen out of advancement because I am male and gay."
—Government lawyer.

--Editing by Jocelyn Allison, Jeremy Barker and Katherine Rautenberg.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

View comments