When we embark on our career paths, most of us are hopeful about what the future holds.  We imagine careers doing what we love in a productive and supportive work environment where nothing limits our personal success except the limits we create for ourselves.  Unfortunately, very few things in life are idyllic.  The work environment is often complicated by unhealthy people who prey on people of the same and/or opposite sex. 

Sexual harassment is generally defined as unwelcome advances of a sexual nature that are explicitly or implicitly linked to an individual’s employment.  It may include such things as:

  • leering
  • sexual innuendo
  • ‘accidentally’ brushing sexual parts of the body
  • lewd & threatening letters
  • tales of sexual exploitation
  • graphic descriptions of pornography
  • pressure for dates
  • sexually explicit gestures
  • unwelcome touching and hugging
  • demanding, “Hey, baby, give me a smile”
  • inappropriate invitations (e.g., hot tub)
  • sexist jokes and cartoons
  • hostile put-downs
  • public humiliation
  • obscene phone calls
  • inappropriate gifts (ex. lingerie)
  • pressing or rubbing up against another person
  • soliciting sexual services
  • stalking
  • leaning over, invading a person’s space [1]

While we like to think the legal profession is comprised of people who would not engage in such behavior, the legal work place is not immune.   In a fairly recent case, a former associate of a large law firm alleged that one of the partners at the firm was flagrantly disrespectful to the women he worked with.  The women had to deal with “numerous unwelcome comments about his sexual experience and desires,” and he often referred to them as “toots,” “honeybunch,” “little girl,” and other “more vulgar and derogatory terms.”[2]  These cases are not often reported because victims don’t want to be further victimized by being labeled as someone who is hyper-sensitive or not a team player. 

In an online resource, a former summer associate described her experience at a large New York law firm. [3]  While there she was targeted by an associate who was clearly interested in more than developing a friendship.[4]  While it is common to have group lunches in the summer, he consistently asked her to lunch alone.[5]  She made a number of excuses before finally suggesting that she would go to lunch with him as long as he invited other attorneys to join them.[6]  He agreed; but, when she arrived at the designated meeting spot, the other attorneys were absent.[7]  She inquired about their whereabouts and he replied that they cancelled.[8]  To which she replied, “Really? Well, where are we going? Someplace quick?”[9]  He said, “No, I got reservations at a really fancy French place. You’ll love it, it’s great.”[10]  Despite her misgivings she went to lunch with him.[11]  During lunch he tried to “play footsie under the table. . . and he insisted on ordering a bottle of wine “for the table,” at 12:30 on a Tuesday.”[12]  When he tried to kiss her in the cab on the way back she told him “Stop that! What are you doing?”[13]  To which he responded, “Whatever, why are you being such a bitch?”[14]

This type of behavior is not limited to the law firm setting.  It often occurs outside of the employer/employee relationship.  The harasser may be an attorney from another office, or a judge, or a client.  In either situation, it is important that you follow your gut.  If your gut suggests that some behavior is suspicious, don’t dismiss it.  Instead, think critically about whether the offending action is, in fact, sexual harassment.

What do you do when these types of things occur?

Depending on the situation and your level of comfort, you might consider direct action.  One author suggests the following:

  • Do the unexpected: Name the behavior. Whatever he’s just done, say it, and be specific.
  • Hold the harasser accountable for his [or her] actions. Don’t make excuses for [the harasser]; don’t pretend it didn’t really happen. Take charge of the encounter and let people know what [was done].
  • Make honest, direct statements. Speak the truth (no threats, no insults, no obscenities, no appeasing verbal fluff and padding). Be serious, straightforward, and blunt.
  • Demand that the harassment stop.
  • Make it clear that [everyone has] the right to be free from sexual harassment. Objecting to harassment is a matter of principle.
  • Stick to your own agenda. Don’t respond to the harasser’s excuses or diversionary tactics.
  • [The] behavior is the issue. Say what you have to say, and repeat it if [the behavior] persists.
  • Reinforce your statements with strong, self-respecting body language: eye contact, head up, shoulders back, a strong, serious stance. Don’t smile. Timid, submissive body language will undermine your message.
  • Respond at the appropriate level. Use a combined verbal and physical response to physical harassment.

End the interaction on your own terms, with a strong closing statement: “You heard me. Stop harassing [men/women].”[15]

If the harassment occurs in the employment context with a colleague or supervisor, an alternative to the direct approach would be to utilize the procedure available through the employer.  Because sexual harassment is so prevalent and employers have taken measures to limit their liability, many employers have sexual harassment policies that will include a complaint process.  You should also be sure to document the events and, if appropriate, take pictures. 

For more information about sexual harassment, check out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website at http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm

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 [1]Feminist Majority Foundation, Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet, http://www.feminist.org/911/harasswhatdo.html  (citing Martha Langelan, Back Off! How To Confront And Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers) (accessed May 20, 2013).

[2] The New York Times, Curbing Sexual Harassment in the Legal World, http://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/09/news/curbing-sexual-harassment-in-the-legal-world.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (accessed May 20, 2013).

[3] Ms.JD,  What No One Tells You Before You Go to Law School: You’re Entering a Sexist Profession, http://ms-jd.org/what-no-one-tells-you-you-go-law-school-youre-entering-sexist-profession (accessed May 20, 2013)

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15]Feminist Majority Foundation, Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet, http://www.feminist.org/911/harasswhatdo.html  (citing Martha Langelan, Back Off! How To Confront And Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers) (accessed May 20, 2013).