Barely a day goes by
without some highly public revelation about sexual harassment involving a
big-name celebrity or politician.
The legal business, however, has been
quietly on the sidelines, largely devoid of any sexual harassment scandal.
Apparently, our industry has yet to be “Weinsteined,” a reference to movie
mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is ground zero for the #metoo Twitter hashtag.
It’s not like the legal business is immune
to sexual harassment allegations or sexual impropriety. Far from it.
In the late 1990s, shortly after Torys
merged with New York’s Haythe Curley, the firm tossed out name partner Thomas Haythe over allegations
of sexual harassment, following a boozy party to celebrate the merger. It was a
prompt and swift response.
In 2004, Power
Budd, a boutique energy law firm, blew apart after Peter Budd was convicted of
sexual exploitation involving two teenage sisters who were under 18.
Around the same
time, George Hunter, head of the Law Society of Upper Canada, resigned after
having an affair with a client.
mid-2000s, the LSUC initially convicted and disbarred Gary Neinstein of
sexually harassing two women — a case that was later overturned by the Ontario
Court of Appeal. The law society later dropped the charges.
In 2015, noted
lawyer Marcel Aubut resigned as president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and
left his law firm BCF (he had taken a group of lawyers there following Heenan
Blaikie’s demise), after complaints surfaced about sexual harassment at the
Today, a search
of canlii.org reveals a number of cases involving law society investigations
and human rights tribunal and court rulings involving law firms and sexual
surprising, given the power imbalance at law firms between senior partners and
their associates and articling students, not to mention the dependent
client-lawyer relationships that can easily be manipulated.
One needs only
to look at complaint statistics handled by the Discrimination and Harassment
Counsel Program to see the extent of the problem. Run by employment lawyer Fay
Faraday, who took over from Cynthia Petersen last July after Petersen was
appointed to the Ontario Superior Court, it’s an independent program funded by
the Law Society of Ontario.
full confidentiality and won’t talk about specifics, but she says the office is
a place where members of the public and profession can turn to if they feel
they are victims of discrimination or harassment by a lawyer or paralegal under
the Ontario Human Rights Code.
offers counselling and guidance, not legal advice, on what it can do and
provides mediation and conciliation services.
figures tabulated by Canadian Lawyer,
between 2003 and the
end of 2016, the office handled 2,502 complaints, almost 200 complaints a year.
Of that, 176 or seven per cent involved sexual harassment.
A reading of
the anonymized summaries is concerning. Often, its law students complaining
about lawyers with whom they work and the alleged conduct is severe.
In one case, a
female articling student reported that she was sexually assaulted by her male
principal at an after-hours, work-related social event. Another female
articling student complained that her firm mishandled a complaint about a
sexual assault by a client and committed reprisals.
complained about being sexually harassed by a managing partner and then being
let go for rejecting his advances.
instances, it’s gender bullying, taunts and sexist and paternalistic utterings.
It’s not just private practice; in-house lawyers have also complained.
In the 1990s,
I interviewed some women lawyers I knew about harassment they faced as
articling students and associates for a Canadian Lawyer feature, including one instance where an
associate was met at the door by a lawyer in a bathrobe, à la Harvey Weinstein.
Reading the DH
counsel’s reports since 2003 suggests to me that not a lot has changed in 25
It’s clear we
are at an inflection point in society when it comes to sexual harassment in the
workplace. Law firms and male lawyers who ignore this do so at their peril. As
Heenan and other firms have shown, the glue that binds partnerships can quickly
dissolve and the acetone precipitating such might very well be serial sexual
The focus on
sexual harassment also comes at a time when Ontario lawyers are fighting over
whether they should be required to adopt a statement of principles that
acknowledges a lawyer’s obligation to promote equality and diversity. Opponents
say it’s nothing more than compelled speech. I say read over the DH counsel’s
reports and talk to some female lawyers. Sexual harassment remains a problem in
the legal business.
As Bob Dylan
wrote, “The times they are a-changin’,” but it isn’t coming fast enough for
many people, including the 41 per cent of the profession who are women.
Jim Middlemiss is a principal at