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Our profession is facing a crisis

Having heard countless stories like my own, I can confidently say that workplace bullying and harassment are not isolated incidents affecting a minority – they are pervasive issues affecting the majority, writes Stefanie Costi.

user iconStefanie Costi 18 April 2024 Big Law
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The legal profession is sick.

It’s not just a case of dog eat dog; it’s more like a vicious cycle of dog eating dog, dog bullying dog, dog harassing dog, dog blaming dog, and then, of course, let’s not forget the classic dog telling dog to “(wo)man up” and “be more resilient”.

Since I started in this so-called “profession” (I use that word loosely) over a decade ago, I have experienced, heard about, and seen a lot of workplace abuse, including, but not limited to, bullying, racial slurs, assault, and deceitful behaviour. The list goes on. It has left me scarred with post-traumatic stress disorder and wanting to leave the law for good more times than I can count.


Yet, the most profound pain that I experienced from each instance of workplace bullying was not the act itself. Rather, it was the pervasive apathy towards this prevalent issue within the legal profession. I understand the scepticism from those who have not experienced it firsthand – it prompts questions about the validity of such incidents.

There are two sides to every story, after all, and then there’s the truth. However, this scepticism often leads to the overlooking, downplaying, or worse, concealment of these taboo subjects through dubious non-disclosure agreements or by simply relegating them to the “too hard” pile because they are too difficult to address. It’s like protecting a few people’s reputations is more important than treating everyone fairly and decently in the law.

What is even more concerning is the flagrant disregard for regulation 5 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules 2015. This regulation explicitly requires solicitors to be “fit and proper” and not “bring the profession into disrepute”.

Yet, day in and day out, many solicitors opt to flout the regulation by mistreating their colleagues and acting unethically without consequence, as if the rules do not apply to them.

Similarly, rule 123 of the Legal Profession Uniform Conduct (Barristers) Rules 2015 unequivocally states that discrimination, sexual harassment, or bullying by barristers is prohibited. Nonetheless, a deluge of barristers choose to circumvent this regulation, hiding behind their robes while engaging in unsavoury tactics and reprehensible behaviour.

As someone who speaks out against workplace bullying and harassment in the legal profession, I have listened to and read some shocking stories from solicitors, barristers, and even members of the judiciary.

One person wrote to me, saying: “I hated every moment of my existence at that firm. I was bullied, demeaned, pressured into behaviours I’m still ashamed of today and made to feel I was not enough due to my background, education, accent, sensitive and kind, friendly nature, and more colourful dress sense. I turned to heavy binge drinking to cope with the stress and to fit in at social gatherings at work and acted in a way that attracted rumours, even though untrue (being accused of sleeping with multiple male colleagues). When I left, I was prepared to walk away from a legal career entirely. I was later diagnosed with symptoms of PTSD arising from workplace harassment and bullying, and avoided career opportunities that would involve having to work in private practice.”

I have heard countless similar testimonies, and I can confidently say that workplace bullying and harassment are not isolated incidents affecting a minority – they are pervasive issues affecting the majority. They are cancers eating away at the very fabric of our profession, and it’s time we cut them out once and for all.

When you are not directly affected by workplace bullying and harassment, it is easy to dismiss it as just part of the job, something you must experience to make it in the legal profession.

However, just because it hasn’t happened to you (lucky you, if that’s the case) does not mean it will not happen in the future, and it definitely does not mean that you should not care or have the audacity to tell others to toughen up. Ignoring the problem isn’t bliss; it’s cowardice, plain and simple.

That’s why I’m calling on you, my fellow legal professionals, to join me in this fight for a healthier and safer work environment. Though some may caution against the potential risks to our careers, the alternative – allowing these destructive forces to thrive – is simply unacceptable.

Stefanie Costi is the founder of the Bona Fide Workplaces campaign and 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.