In May 2019 the International Bar Association published Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession, detailing data collected from nearly 7,000 legal professionals across 135 countries – one of the largest ever surveys on these issues.

Its conclusions make uncomfortable reading: of the survey respondents, half of women and a third of men have suffered bullying in the workplace; one third of women, one in 14 men and over 40% of non-binary respondents have suffered sexual harassment. Of those who had not themselves been bullied, 40% of women and 32% of men had witnessed workplace bullying.

The report states: ‘The legal profession – predicated on upholding the law, maintaining the highest ethical standards and advising other professions on doing the same – is rife with bullying and sexual harassment.’

The news for the Bar gets worse: barristers’ chambers had higher rates of both sexual harassment and bullying than law firms, in-house legal departments and judicial workplaces. ‘Sexist and sexual comments, sexual propositions, seriously inappropriate physical contact and demands for sexual favours in return for work opportunity were all significantly more prevalent in barristers’ chambers.’

In keeping with other surveys, the results also indicate chronic underreporting of such problems: 57% of bullying cases and 75% of sexual harassment cases were not reported. The report notes: ‘The fact that a company has few formal complaints is not the measure of whether there is sexual harassment.’

And when incidents were reported internally, official responses were overwhelmingly considered insufficient or negligible, with perpetrators rarely sanctioned and, in many cases, the situation exacerbated rather than resolved.

Only 24% of respondents from barristers’ chambers rated their workplace’s approach to bullying and harassment as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Just 27% of barristers’ chambers had policies in place: the lowest percentage of all legal workplaces.

Barristers’ chambers had the lowest percentage of respondents who knew who was responsible for managing complaints of bullying & sexual harassment, and by far the lowest rates of running training on harassment and bullying. The survey results indicated that respondents from workplaces where training was provided were less likely to have suffered recent bullying or harassment, were more likely to report it and were more likely to find a good response to their concerns. This shows the enormous value in introducing – or refreshing – good quality, tailored workplace training on these issues.

The ten recommendations for urgent implementation

The report notes that whilst change will not occur overnight, there are ‘compelling moral, ethical and commercial imperatives for the profession to act urgently’. It makes ten recommendations:

  1. Raise awareness: if you’re not already talking about these issues in your chambers, you need to be.
  2. Implementing/revising policies: the Bar Council has recently produced new guidance and a template policy, and its training for managers explains how to formulate a policy to suit your chambers. Important aspects of policies are noted to include good communication about their existence, their incorporation into induction procedures, a process for evaluation and revision and clear designation of one person responsible for handling complaints.
  3. Regular, customised training: available from the Bar Council, including bespoke and in-house.
  4. Increase dialogue & best-practice sharing: while confidentiality obligations and concern about commercial reputation will inevitably inhibit cross-chambers discussions, there is huge benefit in sharing ideas, with friends, via Circuit, through SBAs or with the Bar Council EDSM Committee or Retention Panel.
  5. Take ownership: senior leaders – heads of chambers, chairs of SBAs and Circuits, silks and those with influence in chambers must be vocal about how bullying and sexual harassment must not be tolerated. Bystanders must speak out. ‘Every member of the profession has a role in eliminating bullying and sexual harassment.’
  6. Improve transparency and data collection.
  7. Flexible reporting models: reporting must be supported rather than discouraged. Reporting procedures should include formal, informal and, if possible, anonymous means. The Bar Council will soon be launching ‘Talk to Spot’, an app for creating a confidential, time-stamped record of an incident which can be sent on by the user, anonymously or otherwise, now or at a later time.
  8. Engage with younger members of the profession: policies formulated by the most senior – and oldest – members of chambers are unlikely to win the confidence of the most vulnerable, youngest members. They are important stakeholders and must be involved.
  9. Appreciate the wider context: acknowledge the relationship between mental health, quality of life, diversity and negative workplace culture.
  10. Maintain momentum: 28 years ago it appeared that Anita Hill’s testimony would mark the start of a new era in legal workplaces: the figures in this report show that it did not. The current interest in these issues must not be a passing fad but must be just the first step in a long-term project in which we all play our part. 

Horacio Bernardes Neto, the IBA President, said the study provided the first global proof that ‘bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession... Our ability to advise effectively and drive broader societal change is undermined if we do not address the risk of hypocrisy. If the law is to remain in proper standing with the global community, its practitioners must be of good character.’

Joshua Rozenberg QC moderated the panel discussion with Naomi Ellenbogen QC (Vice chair of the BSB), Simon Davis, Christine Young, Jo Delahunty QC and Kieran Pender (report author).

People in 27 countries were asked to nominate the top two or three issues facing women and girls in their nation in the lead up to International Women’s Day 2019 (IPSOS Mori and Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London). The most cited problem was sexual harassment, with sexual violence coming second and physical violence third.

The Bar Council will soon be launching ‘Talk to Spot’, an app for creating a confidential, time-stamped record of an incident that can be used anonymously.


Esther Gamble is Chair of the Midland Circuit Women’s Forum and a member of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity Retention Panel. She is a member of No5 Chambers in Birmingham, specialising in clinical negligence litigation.

Further reading: ‘Ending harassment: men, welcome to the conversation!’ (Counsel, April 2019); ‘New chapter: ending sexual harassment at the Bar’ (Counsel, October 2018).