Workplace bullying is a severe and widespread problem that affects most industries, including the legal profession. It can take many forms, including verbal, social or psychological abuse, intimidation, discrimination, and even physical violence. Bullies can be employers, managers, another person or a group of people at work, whose conduct may be indirect or covert. This behaviour is incredibly harmful to the individuals who experience it and can have negative consequences for organisations, the profession, and the community.
One reason that workplace bullying is particularly prevalent in the legal profession is the high-stress, high-stakes nature of the work. As we know, lawyers often work long hours under tight deadlines and are expected to perform at a high level. This can create a culture of perfectionism and competitiveness that can breed bullying behaviour. Additionally, the hierarchical nature of many law firms can create a power dynamic that allows senior lawyers to bully junior ones. Even those ‘new law’ firms who adopt non-traditional hierarchical structures are not immune to bullies or this power dynamic.
Now let us better understand the destructive effects that workplace bullying has on individuals.
The effects of workplace bullying on individuals
Victims of workplace bullying may suffer from a range of adverse physical and mental health effects. They may experience anxiety, depression, other mental health conditions, and physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and stomach problems. These effects can impact not only the victim's health and wellbeing but also their ability to perform their role effectively and productively.
Mental health is central to an individual's identity and is key to carrying out duties as a lawyer. When a person experiences workplace bullying, it detracts from their sense of self and impacts their identity. Over time, bully-victims may lose the ability to believe in themselves, confidence in their abilities, and the capacity to maintain social connections and friendships. These are only some long-term consequences of workplace bullying that can be truly destructive for victims, leaving scars and vulnerabilities they are forced to bear throughout their lives and careers.
The consequences & opportunities for firms
Bullying can also have severe consequences for the firm or organisations in which it occurs. For example, it can lead to a negative work culture, a high turnover rate and damage the firm's reputation within the industry. There is also a financial impact and impact on the firm's ability to attract and retain top talent. It is common for most organisations to take a reactive approach to workplace bullying and reports of such behaviour. However, there are benefits to taking a more proactive, preventative approach by tackling the factors that cause bullying and addressing cultural or behavioural issues early on.
Some steps can be taken to address and prevent bullying in the legal profession. One crucial step is for firms and organisations to implement clear policies and procedures that outline acceptable behaviour and provide a process for reporting (confidentially) and addressing bullying.
The Queensland Law Society (QLS) offers all members a free "workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination policy", which is available on their website. Training programs can also be implemented to help employers and employees recognise and address bullying behaviour, empowering bystanders to step-up when appropriate to aid a colleague.
Ways to navigate workplace bullying
Individuals who are experiencing bullying at work can also take steps to protect themselves. For example, it can be helpful to document bullying incidents and seek support from colleagues or a manager. In addition, it is worth highlighting that QLS members can utilise up to 2 hours of free legal advice from the QLS Workplace Conduct Advisory Service (WCAS). WCAS is a service designed to help members navigate complaints involving discrimination, sexual harassment or workplace bullying.
If the behaviour continues or victims cannot address it through internal channels, they may need to seek legal assistance or file a formal complaint. QLS members may also seek advice from a QLS Senior Counsellor, a confidential and free service for QLS members. They are senior and experienced practitioners who can offer guidance on navigating professional problems and advise on avenues to take more formal steps.
QLS offers members a free 24/7 mental health and wellbeing support service for any victim of workplace bullying called LawCare. I've previously sought counselling support through LawCare and other EAP programs, which were incredibly useful in processing workplace conflicts and learning strategies to navigate these bullies.
The systemic issues
In addition to addressing the problem at the organisational level, it is also crucial for the legal profession to address the bullying issue and encourage bystanders to stand up for victims. All law societies across Australia now offer resources for their members addressing workplace bullying and sexual harassment. For example, the Law Society of Western Australia Young Lawyers Committee published their "Fair, Safe and Inclusive Legal Workplaces – Guidelines for the Employment of Law Clerks, Graduates and Lawyers" in 2022. The Guidelines establish a new set of standards and working conditions for the legal profession designed to promote fair access to employment and support the health and wellbeing of our practitioners. In time, I hope that all firms and legal workplaces strive to meet the standards recommended in these Guidelines for the benefit of all practitioners and the profession.
But, of course, more can be done by implementing profession-wide training and awareness programs and encouraging a culture of professionalism and respect while holding those bullies to account.
It takes a village…
Workplace bullying is a serious issue that can have devasting consequences for victims. We each play a role in identifying and addressing workplace bullying and protecting our colleagues from its harmful effects. Turning a blind eye to bullying helps no one. It is the steps we take every day to combat workplace bullying that will compound over time. In turn, our collective actions will continue to build a legal profession that prioritises fair, safe, and healthy work environments for all.
For more information and resources, check out the links below:
- QLS Workplace Conduct Hub
- QLS's free template policy titled "workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination policy"
- Workplace Conduct Advisory Service (WCAS)
- QLS Senior Counsellor
- "Fair, Safe and Inclusive Legal Workplaces – Guidelines for the Employment of Law Clerks, Graduates and Lawyers”, published by the Law Society of Western Australia in September 2022