The SRA and sexual misconduct in the legal sector


Historically, the legal sector has been rife with sexual misconduct, known for its inherent prejudice and “frat-like mentality”. While some steps have been made in the way of improving female representation in the sector, with women now making up 50.1% of UK solicitors, changing the sector’s toxic culture has proven more difficult. 

Reports of sexual misconduct in the legal sector have been on the rise year-on-year, with a number of high-profile cases occurring in the magic circle. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has now revealed it is currently investigating 117 cases of sexual misconduct. Although the regulatory body has been criticised for only recently taking notice of sexual misconduct cases.

The #MeToo movement has shone a light on widespread sexual misconduct within many different sectors of society. However, many women working within the legal sector say that when it comes to the legal profession, there is much more that needs to be done. 

Surge in sexual misconduct reports 

Back in January 2020, a response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by London law firm GQ|Littler revealed some shocking statistics. Over the last five years, the number of reports of sexual misconduct to the SRA doubled. In 2014-15 this number was 25, by 2018-19 it was 63. In the last year alone, this number rose by 16%. Overall this is an increase of 152%.

These deeply concerning statistics are supported by further figures from the International Bar Association (IBA). From an international study of 6,980 respondents across 135 countries, it found that internationally, one in three women and one in fourteen men have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, in the UK specifically, 38% of female respondents and 6% of male respondents said they had been sexually harassed.

The survey, which over 700 British lawyers participated in, found that when it came to incidents of sexual harassment, there was a serious issue of “chronic underreporting”. IBA also found that employer’s responses were “insufficient or negligible” with perpetrators “rarely sanctioned”. 

Many respondents also reportedly feared the repercussions of reporting, and as a result, 74% of respondents who had experienced sexual harassment at work did not report it. Of those who did report sexual harassment, 71% said the response had been ineffectual.

A number of high profile sexual harassment cases have also been brought forward in recent years, including some from within the so-called “magic circle”. Ryan Beckwith, a former Partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was found guilty of sexual misconduct in October 2019, and was ordered to pay £35,000 in fines and £200,000 costs. That being said, Mr Beckwith was not struck off the solicitors register, and is allowed to continue working in the field.

More recently, Gary Senior, ex-Managing Partner of Baker McKenzie, was found to have committed serious professional misconduct by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after he sexually harassed a junior lawyer. He was fined £55,000 and ordered to pay the SRA’s costs of £40,000. The tribunal also found that he had attempted to use his seniority to influence the firm’s investigation into the case. Yet, once again he avoided being struck off.

SRA reveals increase in sexual misconduct investigations

The SRA was established in 2007, as the Law Society Regulation Board, and functions as an independent regulator of over 192,000 solicitors across England and Wales. However, it has been heavily criticised in the past for not doing enough to address sexual misconduct within the sector. Philip Davies MP, even liked the SRA’s relationship with solicitors, to “that of a cosy, old boys’ network”.

In 2018, the House of Commons Women and Equality Committee published its Sexual Harassment in the Workplace inquiry report. In it, the committee expressed its “disappointment” that the SRA presented an apparent “lack of rigour” when investigating the unethical practice of lawyers in the Zelda Perkins case. It also highlighted that there was “not very much” enforcement work on the improper use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

To improve its regulatory oversight, in 2019, the SRA brought in the new Standards and Regulations (STaRs). The new regulations introduced reporting obligations on solicitors and explicitly defined sexual harassment as serious misconduct. It also issued a “warning notice” on the use of NDAs.

Speaking to Legal Business, Iain Miller, Regulatory Partner at Kingsley Napley, reflected on what the new changes mean for the legal sector: “The big story is the SRA’s approach has changed – that’s obvious in the enforcement strategy with its stipulations around money laundering and sexual misconduct. There has been a dividing of responsibilities between the firm and the individual. The SRA’s intention is to regulate the firm’s culture. In the past if a solicitor did something bad, there would just be proceedings against the individual. Now the SRA is asking the firm: “What did you do to create that environment?” Whether that’s an alcohol and testosterone-fuelled Alpha Male culture in sexual misconduct cases or firms which are aggressive around billing in a case of financial misconduct, the environment they worked in could be a contributing factor”.

In addition to these changes, the SRA also pledged to continue pursuing prosecutions against senior solicitors suspected of sexual misconduct. More recently, the regulator announced that it was currently investigating 117 cases related to sexual misconduct, with 36 new incidents since November. 

#MeToo and the need to tackle toxic culture

While the #MeToo movement has sparked positive change in most sectors, some women working within the legal sector have said that it has failed to dismantle the hierarchical systems in law that lead to abuses of power. Barrister Joanna Hardy emphasised this in an article for The Guardian, by stating that the legal profession is “inherently sexist”.

Horacio Bernardes Neto, IBA President echoed this sentiment, arguing that this stems from a severe power imbalance. He said that in law there is: “Male-dominated leadership and an inherently hierarchical power structure, with lower-level employees largely dependent on superiors for advancement”. 

Expanding on this, speaking to the Finanicial Times, he said the data from the IBA study showed that sexual harassment is “endemic in the legal profession”. He added: “It is deeply shameful that our profession, predicated on the highest ethical standards, is rife with such negative workplace behaviours”.

Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and Director of External Affairs at Vodafone UK reiterated this, by expressing that “casual sexism” is still “far too prevalent”. Further to this, she stated: “Are women choosing to leave the profession? If so is this choice being exacerbated by the behaviour of firms? The answer to this was historically yes”.

In an attempt to curb sexual misconduct in the workplace, some major law firms, like Linklaters, have introduced “booze-bans” or “sober supervision schemes” whereby partners assign a sober supervisor for work events. Meanwhile, Slaughter and May placed a ban on work-subsidised ski trips, after a female solicitor made allegations of sexual harassment against a male colleague on a company ski-trip. 

However, it appears that both of these approaches entirely miss the point and ignore the wider, more deep rooted issues, such as sexism, hierarchical power imbalance and prejudice. Those who are inclined to sexually harass a colleague will do so, regardless of alcohol or ski trips. 

That being said, more meaningful change has been instigated through the launch of the Women in Law Pledge. Created by the Bar Council of England and Wales and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), since its launch in June 2019, it has gained 24 signatories. This includes the Welsh government, Clifford Chance and the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates. When signing the pledge, organisations commit themselves to supporting the progression of women into senior roles and also pledge to set clear plans and targets around gender equality.

Ultimately, the legal sector must push forward in its fight against extremely out-dated, regressive and sexist views on women and behaviour in the workplace. A serious culture change is required in order to eliminate sexual misconduct and discrimination, and simply removing alcohol or workplace trips from the equation, won’t cut it. Survivors are speaking out, and time is up for sex offenders who use their power to commit sexual offences in the workplace.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn