Female law trainees 'victims of sexual blackmail'

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Female trainee solicitors are being blackmailed into accepting sexual advances from senior male lawyers in return for being offered jobs, a report into employment practices in law firms has found.

In one case, a 24-year-old lawyer was told that, unless she agreed to go on a date with her supervisor, she would be denied an employment contract. Another was told to sit on the senior partner's lap or she would not get the training she required.

Callers to a national helpline for young lawyers also complained of being made to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning the office lavatories, parking the senior partner's car or spending a day photocopying or answering phones on the reception desk. The findings, which are contained in a report by the Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG), paints a picture of widespread abuse and exploitation among pre-qualified lawyers who earn a minimum of £14,720 a year. It also adds to a picture of scandalous and salacious behaviour of partners in City law firms.

Peter Wright, chairman of the TSG, said one worrying element to the experiences reported by young women lawyers was that many of them had submitted to the demands made of them.

"It's absolutely shocking that these trainees should somehow feel that if they don't do what is asked of them they will not get their seats [training contract in a particular department]," said Mr Wright. "Many of them only contacted us after they had complied with the request." More than a quarter of the record 2,241 calls to the helpline in the past year were from trainees who were being bullied, harassed or exploited.

Calls to the helpline increased by 13 per cent on the previous year - with more than two-thirds of the calls coming from women, and just under a third from trainees from ethnic minorities. Mr Wright told the Law Society Gazette: "This is not just a few cases - it is dozens and hundreds, and it is a telling statistic that two-thirds of calls were from women. In smaller firms, trainees can be treated as the bottom of the food chain - little more than low-paid menial staff on the same level as office assistants."

Last year, UK law firms took on more than 5,600 trainees, paying them on average £26,000 per year. In a guide published last month, trainees and newly qualified solicitors were asked to rank their firm in a series of different categories and pick out their best and worst moments of their working lives. Often in their first jobs, they complained of being verbally abused by partners, criticised by impatient judges and being made to work 100 hours a week without adequate breaks.

The guide, which warns graduates of the harsh working environments in the City, also helps identity firms which suffer from the worst macho cultures.

Mary Breeze (not her real name), 24, from south London, was at first impressed by the informal relationships between the younger female trainees and partners at the central London law firm where she worked as a paralegal. "It just seemed like a fun place to work - we played hard and worked hard. But the closer I got to being taken on as a trainee the more interest some of the partners started to take in me.

"Then one of the partners asked me out on a date. I turned him down. Suddenly, he became frosty and started to suggest my prospects with his firm were not good. He even said I should find another firm."

Later, the partner asked Ms Breeze on another date.

"By this time, I had got the message. I discovered the more I flirted with the partners the more interesting the assignments became. Soon after my night out with the partner I was offered a contract."