You are an ambitious and talented lawyer. Your professional life is generally going well, except you have one major, somewhat horrifying, work issue. Your boss or someone else in a position of power has started to make unwanted passes at you.
After many years of speaking with and counseling lawyers who have been sexually harassed at the workplace, I want to address this issue not in terms of the moral thing to do, but in terms of career advancement and ambition. When combined with career, sexual harassment presents an ugly, thorny, and complicated set of decisions for victims.
October 11, 2013 was the 22nd anniversary of the most public accusation a lawyer ever made about sexual harassment. Professor Anita Hill and others have made deciding to publicize harassment a bit more comfortable, but it is still not easy.
Writing particularly for lawyers in her blog, “The Careerist”, Vivia Chen recently wrote about research showing that although most of us believe we would report sexual harassment, in fact we seldom do, http://thecareerist.typepad.com/thecareerist/2013/10/stand-up-for-sexual-harassment.html. A frequent reason we lawyers remain silent is to protect our careers. When victims let things percolate before deciding to report harassment, victims face a double whammy. Victims then face with a perpetrator who is even angrier because he believed he had acted with impunity and judgment from others who believe the victim lacks courage, or worse, veracity.
In addition to unwanted touching and leering by partners at even the most prestigious firms, there are also supposedly “fun” invitations by partners to fellow lawyers, often associates, to join them at sex clubs as part of evening activities, in town or on business trips. What to do?
Lawyers who complain about sexual harassment often ruin their career chances at the place they lodged their complaint. Often reasons are found to dismiss them.
Lawyers have no more (and no less) difficulty deciding whether to complain than other kinds of employees. It is always a balancing act. Employment lawyer Diana Friedland, http://www.laemploymentcounsel.com/biography2.htm, believes “Sexually harassed employees have three options—to quit, to complain about it to management, or to continue putting up with it without making waves. I caution them about complaining, because while there is always the hope that the company will take the matter seriously and remedy the situation, there is always the risk the company will view the employee as a “problem” or “liability,” and take adverse action. It is their personal decision to make, based on their financial situation, their professional ambitions, and their morals.”
Sometimes careers take unexpected turns caused by irreparable difficulties and circumstances difficult to control, and sometimes with unexpectedly good results. I have known more than one fine law firm that began because a brand new firm seemed like the best choice after a harassment claim was fought, ignored or dismissed. Many of us know that historically, several national law firms were started because of racial, religious or gender prejudices that could not be overcome. Although one would never wish it, lack of serious attention to or correction of sexual harassment is another incentive to take ones marbles and play elsewhere. It may just beat the pain of not being taken seriously. Doing well is the best revenge.