‘Rock the boat yourself’: How to report harassment as a young lawyer

By Naomi Neilson|27 July 2020
How to report harassment as a young lawyer

While it may be impossible to erase sexual harassment from the profession altogether, top legal women have offered advice to young lawyers on how to report this behaviour and protect themselves against untoward advances from senior professionals.

Just a month ago, the legal profession learned six young women were sexually harassed by a former justice of the High Court. While Dyson Heydon has denied the allegations, there were still the reports of young lawyers leaving the profession in droves, reporting feeling disillusioned with the profession’s ability to address this behaviour. 

In a UNSW Law webinar, top legal women shared their sadness of learning that bright and talented young minds had been lost to the profession. While the onus of changing the profession should be on the most senior, they offered advice for young lawyers on how to build a safe network and report poor behaviour without consequence. 

“One of the things I [learned] way too late in life – after I had been a barrister for 25 years – is it really doesn’t matter if people like you all that much,” said barrister Jane Needham SC, adding that while it matters in personal and work environments, when it comes to people who are trying to harm young professionals, “it doesn’t matter”. 

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Ms Needham told young lawyers to work on their relationships within the firm or within their company so they have levels of support, but if someone is harassing them or are targeting a colleague, “don’t be afraid to call it out because there’s not enough of that”. 

“We – as older, privileged and generally white people who are [standouts] in law – have frankly let it go on too long because we have not wanted to rock the boat. If you need someone to come in, go and speak to someone more senior [and trusted], but do not be afraid to rock the boat yourself,” Ms Needham said. 

While there are ways to report harassment – either through the firms’ HR department, law societies or bar associations – UNSW Law Professor Andrea Durbach said young lawyers can also create their own ways of building effective support structures. 

Professor Durbach said the profession is losing amazing talent because young people are afraid their complaint will go nowhere, but she recommended joining committees, building networks and making sure all voices and complaints are heard. 

“Get on those committees and make your young voices heard. That’s what I did, I used the committee system really effectively. It was through here that we were able to seek and ask for a support structure for complaints,” Professor Durbach said. 

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The responsibility of changing the profession’s attitudes to sexual harassment, harmful power structures and holding the most senior professionals to account for their actions is with the governing bodies. Until such a time that there is real change – and not empty promises – young lawyers can take steps to challenge poor behaviour. 

“I thought it was one of the most devastating things to come out of the allegations, that the law had lost enormous talent because we have been unable to provide [them with] safe systems of work,” said Newcastle Law School’s Dr Kcasey McLoughlin. 

“It shouldn’t be on the heads of these people entering the profession to try and change the culture. I will say, though, that as someone who teaches some of the brightest and inquisitive young law students that we have today, I’m often really buoyed by the sense of equality and the extent I can see them already disrupting these power structures.”

‘Rock the boat yourself’: How to report harassment as a young lawyer
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