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SPLF Employment Blog

Does Sexual Harassment Happen in Professional Firms?

If a person works in a professional field, it doesn’t mean that he or she acts professionally. Doctors, accountants, and lawyers can all sexually harass others. A harasser is one who wants to exploit his or her position of power for personal gratification, no matter what his or her job title may be.


Attorneys May Be Vulnerable to Harassment

Dr. Freada Klein, president of Klein Associates in Boston, is in the business of helping law firms resolve and prevent sexual harassment, according to FindLaw. She says that she’s surveyed attorneys who claimed to have been harassed or subjected to discrimination.

  • About 60% of these lawyers stated that they were too afraid to complain.
  • They feared they wouldn’t be believed, their story might get out in the office, or they might be retaliated against.
  • They may fear being taken off important projects, not being able to work for significant clients, and generally having their upward mobility endangered.

Klein claims there’s more sexual harassment in law firms (big and small) than in Fortune 500 companies, with 17% of female attorneys and 12% of support staff stating they’d been harassed in the past year. She claims those working in litigation are most at risk of harassment.

Klein asserts that law firm harassment complaints are on the rise because people are more aware of the problem, and since it’s more common for attorneys to move from firm to firm, they’re more likely to report harassment by co-workers because they feel their careers are less at risk if they need to leave the firm.

Law firms, like all employers, have many incentives to prevent sexual harassment from happening and to take actions to stop it if it’s reported.

  • There’s the time, effort, and money litigation requires, plus the costs of a settlement or jury verdict. If a lawsuit is filed, it’s a public document, and embarrassing testimony at trial may be carried in the local press.
  • If news spreads that a law firm tolerates sexual harassment, it may lose clients and it may be more difficult to hire female attorneys and support staff.

The Above the Law website, which covers the legal profession, has a “Pink Ghetto” section about sexism. One page recounts stories of female attorneys being sexually harassed, propositioned, and retaliated against for complaints about the conduct they’re endured.


The Baker & McKenzie Bombshell

The case that publicized the problem of sexual harassment in the legal profession was decided and widely publicized in 1994. Baker & McKenzie, at the time the world’s largest law firm, was found by a San Francisco jury to have been responsible for the sexual harassment of a secretary, Rena Weeks, according to the Chicago Tribune. The jury awarded $7.1 million in damages against the firm and one of its partners.

Punitive damages, meant to punish a defendant for particularly bad behavior, were $6.9 million of the damages, which at the time was believed to be the highest punitive damages ever awarded in such a case. “Baker & McKenzie is the General Motors of the legal industry,” juror Frank Lewis was quoted as saying. “To have punished them with anything less clearly wouldn’t have meant anything to them.”

Weeks claimed that the law firm ignored repeated sexual harassment complaints against partner Martin Greenstein because he brought in a lot of business to the firm. Her case was supported by the testimony of six other women who stated they had also had been sexually harassed by Greenstein.

Weeks claimed that in her three months working for the firm in 1991, among other things, the following occurred:

  • Greenstein grabbed her breast while pouring M&Ms down her front blouse pocket.
  • He then held her arms behind her back and asked which breast was larger.

The firm claimed it investigated Weeks’s complaints and transferred her to another department. After her lawsuit was filed, Greenstein was sent to two sessions of counseling. He was forced out of the firm in 1993 for an unrelated allegation of “serious professional misconduct” concerning the alleged backdating of legal documents.

The trial judge lowered the punitive damages award to $3.5 million. The law firm appealed the verdict, but the California Supreme Court affirmed the trial decision in 1998, according to the Los Angeles Times. The California Court of Appeals decision also supporting the verdict is available here.

Accountant Accused of Frequent, Open Harassment of Female Employees

Successful accountant working with financial data in the office
Successful accountant working with financial data in the office

It’s not just lecherous attorneys in the professional world. One New York accountant, Thomas Ross, president of Ross, Rigby and Patten in Queensbury, and his firm were sued for sexual harassment and sex discrimination by four former employees in 2011, according to the Glens Falls PostStar.

The lawsuit filed in state court in Warren County claimed the following facts:

  • The plaintiffs worked at the firm as an administrator, an administrative assistant, managing director, and office manager between 2007 and 2009.
  • They were sexually harassed and later fired by Ross.
  • The firm’s other partners, Leo Rigby and Heather Patten, were aware of the behavior but failed to take corrective action.
  • Ross referred to female employees and clients as “bitch,” “witch,” “stupid,” and “whore.”
  • He made comments about female employees’ underwear and said some female workers needed to wear less or “get laid.”

The attorney for the plaintiffs stated that the harassment happened in the open and was “unremitting.” Ross denied the claims. His firm merged with another accounting firm, Marvin and Co., soon after the lawsuit was filed. The firm’s current website no longer shows Ross as part of the “Company Team,” but it does have a useful blog on office romances.

Summing It Up

No line of work is immune from sexual harassment. Just because people are highly paid doesn’t mean they’re not low enough to engage in sexual harassment. Women in positions of power and who have autonomy (such as in a professional field) are sexually harassed just as other female employees are, according to research at Ohio State University. Their male harassers may see them as a potential threat in a traditionally male dominated profession.

No matter the workplace or the nature of the work, sexual harassment is illegal.

  • To be considered a violation of the law, the harassment must be severe or pervasive enough to change the conditions of the worker’s employment, creating an abusive working environment.
  • Harassment is often committed by someone in a management position, but it can also be committed by co-workers, clients, or contractors if management knows of the harassment or should know about it and fails to stop it.
  • Harassment victims should report the improper conduct internally. Unless the situation is widely known and egregious, an employer should be given the opportunity to correct the situation. Otherwise, an employer could claim it was unaware of the harassment, didn’t have a chance to stop it, and couldn’t prevent it from continuing, so shouldn’t be held responsible.

If you are the victim of sexual harassment in any workplace, at a professional firm or not, in Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia, contact our office with any questions about harassment law, the ways the law may apply to your situation, and the best ways to protect yourself and your legal rights.

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