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No more hiding, no more excuses: What bullying really looks like in law

In the dark corners of the legal profession, a malevolent force preys upon the vulnerable, leaving an indelible mark on our once-noble calling: bullying, writes Stefanie Costi.

user iconStefanie Costi 10 August 2023 Big Law
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This isn’t some distant, hushed rumour I’ve overheard behind closed doors. I’ve witnessed this horror show time and time again, feeling helpless as it unfolds before my very eyes. I’ve seen the havoc it wreaks.

Today, I absolutely refuse to mince my words or dance around the issue.

Brace yourself as I tear off the veil and expose the ugly face of bullying that festers within the legal profession.


Verbal and psychological abuse: Poisonous words and mind games

Within these so-called esteemed halls, verbal and psychological abuse slithers like a venomous serpent. Yes, lawyers are lauded for their sharp tongues and quick wit, but when these talents morph into tools of psychological torment – when personal attacks, insults, and humiliation become their purpose – they transform into weapons of destruction.

I can still vividly remember the colleague who endured relentless ridicule simply for being Catholic, unfairly linked to the alleged deeds of the late Cardinal George Pell. In another appalling instance, a legal professional was cruelly branded with the derogatory nickname “dummy” for a mistake made years ago. And then there were those shocking spectacles of judicial members, overwhelmed and disgruntled, resorting to passive-aggressive jabs from the bench or senior figures, casting aside all decorum, hurling phones and documents while bellowing names that echoed with public humiliation.

Make no mistake; these examples are not fabricated. They are the sickening reality we face.

The silent tactics of sabotage: Undermining and exclusion

But don’t be fooled – verbal and psychological abuse are not the only instruments of torment in our revered profession. Undermining and exclusion silently erode trust, belittle contributions, and sabotage any chance of success.

Imagine partners deliberately averting their gazes in the corridors from those they supervise, lawyers cruelly instructed to maintain distance from secretaries, or paralegals cast aside and their worth questioned until they achieve admission. Picture a senior exhibiting ruthless favouritism towards one associate while disregarding another, starving them of any guidance and mentoring. Envision the perpetuation of an archaic boys’ club that shuts out female colleagues from conversations. And the soul who was frozen out while serving out their notice period after being headhunted.

These are not mere fantasies; they are the raw, unfiltered truths real people face day in and day out.

Crossing the line: Physical abuse and harassment

To make matters worse, physical abuse and harassment rear their ugly heads in the legal world. Shamefully, lawyers, bound by an oath of justice, stoop to the level of perpetrators of violence. Weapons meant for defence become tools of torment, and initiation rituals twist into instruments of humiliation and degradation.

Bullying can also escalate into relentless harassment. Sexual harassment, offensive remarks, and discrimination based on race or sexual orientation tarnish the professional boundaries that should safeguard our work environments, stripping victims of their safety and dignity. I have witnessed others facing offensive comments belittling their appearances, while my Greek/Cypriot heritage earned me the moniker of “Dapto”. I have also heard of a colleague who was condemned as a “black bastard” purely due to his Indian origin.

Change must happen now

I refuse to sit idly by as a few bullies try to tank and corrode the very essence of our esteemed profession with their pathetic excuses. I’ve heard their dismissive remarks: “Be more resilient,” “It was worse in my day,” “You’ve been admitted for two minutes – what would you know about bullying?” and “Aren’t you worried about what standing up against workplace bullying is going to mean for your career?”

I refuse to be silenced on the issue because the bullying I’m aware of goes beyond mere workplace conflicts; it teeters on the edge of criminal behaviour and deserves serious attention.

I won’t rest until I see tangible changes in our profession. Being a lawyer isn’t just a job that pays the bills for me; it’s a burning passion that drives me. I will persistently raise my voice, write, and speak about the rampant bullying that infests our ranks.

Gone are the days of turning a blind eye and enabling despicable behaviour. I’ve had enough of the spineless words, the timid steps, and the nauseating complacency that has allowed this festering poison to spread unchecked. It’s time for a resounding wake-up call. We must confront these bullies head-on, shatter their suffocating grip, and reclaim control of our profession.

Every single member of the legal profession holds the power to stamp out this toxic culture from within. No more excuses, no more passing the buck, no more looking the other way. It’s time to stand united and resolute.

Let us cultivate an unwavering culture of respect, where every colleague, regardless of background or position, is treated with the dignity they deserve. The moment has come to embrace open dialogue and to create an inclusive environment where every voice in the law isn’t just heard, but genuinely valued.

Education and training are our swords in this battle. We must institute comprehensive programs at every level of legal education and professional development. Enlighten hearts and minds about the devastating consequences of bullying. Stress the vital importance of respectful communication, conflict resolution, and safeguarding psychological wellbeing.

However, let this be a warning: if your organisation claims to care about your people’s wellbeing, ensure they believe it enough to echo your praises in the wider community. If your workplace becomes a living nightmare, rest assured, people will talk.

We need ironclad policies and formidable reporting mechanisms to draw a bold line in the sand against bullying. We must define what’s acceptable, outline stern consequences, and establish confidential channels for reporting. Empower victims to step forward without fear of retribution, ensuring their voices are heard and their experiences validated. But remember, your firm’s policies mean nothing if they’re mere empty words on a page.

Our leaders have the immense power to shape the culture, to be beacons of respect, collaboration, and inclusivity. Provide mentorship opportunities, nurture growth, and champion a balanced work/life existence. Measure the success of partners holistically, far beyond being a rainmaker and the bottom line, and include employee retention and mentorship.

No longer can we cover up for staff who are chronic bullies, appeasing the bullied with quiet settlements for workplace claims just because they bring in money. In the end, such tolerance will leave us with nobody left to do the work.

Through bold and proactive steps, we shall breathe life into a legal profession that stands as an impressive fortress of respect, inclusivity, and psychological safety.

It’s not just an individual’s responsibility to fend off bullying; it’s a shared, unwavering duty to tear this vile scourge from our profession, forever forging a path toward a brighter, more compassionate future. No more hiding, no more excuses, and no more bullsh*t. Let’s confront the ugly truth and surgically remove this poison from our profession once and for all.

Stefanie Costi is a lawyer who empowers victims of workplace bullying to take decisive action and educates organisations about its impact and preventive measures. Through her advocacy, Stefanie strives to create healthier and more respectful work environments where everyone can thrive without fear. You can find her here.