#MeToo Means Law Firms (and Clients) Too

Corporate Counsel recently reported in an article titled ‘Harassment From Clients Can Stunt Women’s Careers, but Few Firms Are Trying to Stop It’ that “sexual harassment by clients is not uncommon in the legal industry” and that “few law firms have policies in place to address inappropriate client behavior.”

So, what should a firm do when a corporate client sends a representative who then harasses a female law professional? Firms naturally want to keep clients happy. However, defending the harassment victim (especially in the #MeToo era) should take precedent.

To dig deeper into the client sexual harassment issue, we asked several female law professionals whether they’d experienced or witnessed sexual harassment by a client and what (if anything) the firm did about it.

The first two respondents (CEOs with extensive experience in law firm management) had not experienced or witnessed client harassment. One said, “I haven’t actually been involved in instances of this. Internally yes, but with clients, no.”

The third reply came from an HR Director who has worked at several top law firms. Her story serves as a poignant example and illustrates how firms can handle the issue in a professional, fair, and timely manner.

“We were hosting a panel discussion that involved a number of clients with Directors present. This was an off-site, two-day event that also involved dinners and, of course, drinking. After the event, I was contacted by a Director who had been physically assaulted by one of our clients. He wanted to escort her back to her room after dinner and his room was close to hers. As they approached her room, he physically grabbed her and tried to kiss her. There was a brief struggle and she was able to get into her room and immediately closed the door. She took pictures of bruises on her arm.

“After that incident, he began to text her messages indicating that he wanted to ‘hook up’ with her.  As the CHRO, she came to me directly to tell me about the incident. We immediately launched an investigation beginning with a full account of what happened that evening including viewing the pictures. We also asked if there were any witnesses. Of course, there were none. We asked all the other questions you need to ask during this type of investigation. We asked if this had been reported to the police or hotel security.

“I next contacted their VP HR – this is a very large well-known corporation. She then put me in touch with the individual conducting the investigation for their company. I provided all the details. She then asked to speak to our employee directly. We only allowed this with the consent of the employee and with our HR representative present as well.  The solution was they removed their employee from our account and, ultimately, terminated this individual.  It had not been the first complaint raised.  We wrapped up the investigation with our employee telling her that appropriate action had been taken.

“A law firm needs to make very public their anti-harassment policy and make it ‘comfortable’ for these women to come forward without the fear that we may lose a client.  This also underscores the need for continuous training and awareness of the situations that women face.  If witnessed directly with a supervisor or supervising attorney, they need to intervene to correct the situation immediately and contact the HR department to address proactively.”

Debbie Epstein Henry, a legal industry consultant and expert on women’s issues was our fourth respondent, offering this advice for firms, “It is critical that firms train their lawyers to address client harassment of women lawyers. Firms need to educate their lawyers about how to respond if they witness such harassment as well as if they are the subject of the harassment. Firms need a clear reporting process with confidentiality protections so lawyers who report such incidents are not fearful of or retaliated against for doing so. Additionally, firms need to have an explicit no tolerance policy and be willing to remedy inappropriate scenarios that arise and also ultimately turn away clients and their business if that is what is required.”

By V.L. Brunskill

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