Sexual harassment is "alarmingly commonplace" in the legal profession and Australia has among the highest reported rates of bullying and harassment in the world, according to a landmark survey of 7000 lawyers in more than 100 countries.
Almost 30 per cent of Australian lawyers who responded to the International Bar Association (IBA) survey, released on Wednesday, reported that they had been sexually harassed in the workplace, compared with 21.8 per cent in the United Kingdom and 32.6 per cent in the United States. The global average was 22 per cent.
More than 60 per cent of Australian respondents reported that they had been bullied at work, compared with 51 per cent in the UK, 50.3 per cent in the US and 43 per cent globally.
Women lawyers in Australia reported higher rates of harassment and bullying than their male peers, at 47 per cent (compared with 13 per cent of men) and 73 per cent (50 per cent of men) respectively.
The IBA report is the largest-ever global survey of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. Australia provided the highest number of respondents, accounting for 937 or 13 per cent of the 6980 responses from 135 countries.
The association said the relatively high rates of reported bullying and harassment in Australia may be evidence of "a 'perception paradox', whereby jurisdictions typically viewed as 'progressive' in addressing issues of bullying and sexual harassment have higher reported rates of such conduct than elsewhere".
This did not mean the higher figures in "absolute or objective" terms were inaccurate, but there may be under-reporting in some countries due to a "disparity between perception and reality".
Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is leading a world-first inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, which is due to report in the second half of the year.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the inaugural chair of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at King's College London, said in a foreword to the IBA report that it was "a clarion call for urgent action".
"As the #MeToo movement has shown, women are no longer prepared to be silent. The demands for deep-seated reform are insistent and determined," Ms Gillard said. "After all this activity, the world cannot lapse back into shameful silence."
The legal profession had a "special, indeed privileged role, in advocating for and ushering in change", Ms Gillard said, but the profession could "only step up to this role with integrity if it makes sure its own house is in order".
Kieran Pender, legal advisor to the IBA's policy and research unit, led the project. He said the association's "research found that targets of bullying and sexual harassment very rarely report the misconduct to their workplaces or regulators", because of "the status of the perpetrator, fear ofrepercussions and because the incidents are often endemic to the workplace".
The IBA found 57 per cent of bullying cases and 75 per cent of sexual harassment cases worldwide were not reported.
The majority of respondents to the global survey worked in law firms (73 per cent), followed by corporations and organisations (9 per cent), barristers' chambers (6 per cent) and government (5 per cent). Lawyers aged under 40 accounted for 53 per cent of respondents.
The IBA selected nine "case study" jurisdictions, including the UK, US, Costa Rica, Brazil, Sweden and Australia, to illustrate the findings in its report. Of those jurisdictions, Costa Rica reported the highest rates of harassment and bullying (34.8 per cent 65.7 per cent, respectively).
Australia ranked third for sexual harassment, at 29.6 per cent of respondents - behind the US on 32.6 per cent - and second for bullying, at 61.4 per cent of respondents.
One victim of sexual harassment in an Australian law firm told the IBA she "did not report the incident for some time because I did not have faith in the firm to address the issue".
"There were always rumours that people in a position of power would not be held accountable for their actions," she said. "However, once I finally reported the incident, it was dealt with swiftly and my anonymity was protected."
Peter Paradise, a former partner in the Sydney office of global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, was dismissed from the firm last year after it conducted an internal investigation into allegations made against him by three women.
The IBA made 10 recommendations for change, including improving avenues for reporting bullying and harassment, engaging with younger members of the profession, gathering data and improving transparency, and maintaining the momentum for change.
Law Society of NSW chief executive Michael Tidball said the IBA data was "unedifying, but it underscores the need for the Law Society of NSW to continue to provide leadership in confronting systemic equity between men and women and, at an individual level, deal with the distress that arises from harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour".
He said the Law Society had "worked hard to raise public awareness about this issue" and "if the effect of that awareness is that we are getting high reporting, then there is an opportunity arising from that ... to engage with victims and to ensure their issues are dealt with".
Victims of sexual harassment can report offenders to the Law Society's professional standards department. Under the rules governing solicitors' conduct, sexual harassment "could constitute professional misconduct" and lead to an offener being barred from practising, Mr Tidball said.
- SMH/The Age