The solicitors who get solicited

Female lawyers who are sexually harassed by their firm's clients often keep it quiet. And many who respond to the flattery wish they hadn't.
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The Independent Online

It's an everyday occurrence. After a relaxed lunch, a solicitor and potential client visit the client's office to find out more about his business, and in the taxi afterwards, he puts his hand on the female assistant solicitor's knee, suggesting that the next time they meet it should be in his flat in London.

It's an everyday occurrence. After a relaxed lunch, a solicitor and potential client visit the client's office to find out more about his business, and in the taxi afterwards, he puts his hand on the female assistant solicitor's knee, suggesting that the next time they meet it should be in his flat in London.

Lawyer-client relationships can and do happen. Earlier this year, a female defence lawyer was dropped from a murder case after she fell in love with her client.

Matrimonial cases tend to be the most problematic, because the client is in a very vulnerable position emotionally - a lawyer was sacked when she became pregnant by a married client, and took her claim for unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal, which was rejected. The most high profile case was that of Paul Butner, who acted for the Princess of Wales in 1995; he had a relationship with one of his clients, Penelope Cooper in the late 1980s.

Last month a survey carried out by the Law Society found that in a fifth of discrimination or sexual harassment cases it was the client who was named as the source. And a tenth of all trainee solicitors said that clients had acted in a "lewd or sexually suggestive way".

Law Society guidelines state that a relationship between a solicitor and client is acceptable as long as there is no conflict of interest.

In those circumstances, the relationships are consensual on both sides. But what do you do if a client or a potential client's attentions are unwanted?

"It may be a common situation," says Alison (not her real name), who was the solicitor in the taxi, "but it was certainly not welcome. As a senior associate looking for partnership, part of my work is to bring in new clients and business. That is why I talk at conferences, and network generally. This potential client was perfectly pleasant and said that he was looking for advice in the area of law that I specialise in, but after lunch, he kept telling me what "a lovely girl" I was. When he put his hand on my knee and suggested that the next time we met should be at his flat, I had to tell him in no uncertain terms that his behaviour was not appropriate or welcome."

Needless to say, the potential client is now neither potential nor a client. But Alison says that this is not an isolated incident. It is not unusual for men to come up after she has spoken at a conference, offer their business cards and ask if she is married. She is nonplussed: "I do not give out any vibes, I usually wear a black trouser suit, so it's hardly off-the-shoulder stuff. At first when it happened, I would let them down gently, and say no firmly; and initially in a way it was quite flattering, but now I see it as patronising, and I get bloody annoyed."

The problem is that these incidents go unreported. As Marcia Williams, secretary to the equal opportunities committee at the Law Society says: "Anecdotally, we are aware that this goes on, but there has been no reported complaint yet. It is unfortunate if someone feels intimidated by such behaviour but because of their position in a firm, they don't want to make waves. It is a matter of personal conscience whether they want to make a formal or legal complaint, so that there is then something on the record - but they should complain. Essentially, it is a form of sexual harassment because the employer has put the employee in that position, which is similar to what happened in the recent case when a waitress sued her employers when she had to work during a Bernard Manning show."

And it is not just assistant solicitors who are in this position. At the Bar, one female barrister, after a conference with a client was bombarded with flowers every day, and inundated with letters for weeks, until firm action had to be taken by the instructing solicitor and the barrister herself.

A female head of department of a City firm who was pitching for a major new client's work says that the potential client took her out for lunch to discuss the firm and his company, then later telephoned her five times to tell her that "his wife was not in London". She says she felt embarrassed: "He knew I was married, and also the mother of teenage children and hardly a femme fatale. I stopped returning his calls, and lost the opportunity to get that business." But she does not regret the decision, and adds an anecdote of her own, proving that men are also vulnerable to such behaviour. She knows a male head of an employment department in a law firm who was told by a female human resources director that if he "found time to see her", the work from her company would definitely go to him.

With increasing competition for promotion internally and competition for work generally by firms pitching for clients, this is likely to become more common. There are even stories of law firms selecting their most attractive female assistants and trainees to get involved in what are now, literally, beauty parades to pitch for business. And junior employees are put in an invidious position, feeling that they have to toe the line or they will not advance in their career.

Even more difficult is the case where a solicitor suffers unwanted attention from someone in their own firm, where reporting an incident may mean having drop out of the profession because they are branded as a troublemaker. The legal press and even the broadsheets have recently had a spate of reports of such claims. City law firm CMS Cameron McKenna has had six claims, including harassment and sex and racial discrimination, filed against it by assistant solicitors and a paralegal.

And it is not just in cases of harassment where the consequences can be dramatic - at Edward Lewis, the chairman, Tony Collins, resigned from the firm's management committee following allegations of sex discrimination against him, which he denies. Both firms are carrying out their own investigations in response to the claims brought against them.

According to Georgina Keane, head of employment at City firm Richards Butler, it is a health and safety issue. Clear guidelines and systems have to be put in place to provide a safe working environment. "It's like the Lamplugh case covering estate agents seeing clients on their own. This has to be highlighted. And there is another point, in such a situation, if a person is behaving like that with his lawyer, how is he behaving with his own staff?

"Even if a client threatens to take away the work, you have to protect your employees - the firm is responsible if a member of staff gets harassed: that is unlawful sex discrimination. The worst thing is that a junior employee may feel that they are responsible in some way, even if they are not, or may feel that they can't report it. Firms like Richards Butler have a designated partner who will deal with such incidents. Any good firm or employer will react positively - if not, it will be exposed to significant liability."

There are moves to combat this problem, Angela Morgan, chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors says that they are considering setting up a harassment help line, which will cover incidents involving clients and potential clients, and also other lawyers. She also suggests that there should be training to cover how to deal with such harassment, and how to avoid it. "The problem is more widespread than imagined," she says, "and it is often put down to a mere misunderstanding by the client that promotional activity is an invitation to something more personal. That is inevitable when there is so much competition, but there have to be moves to stop that culture developing further."