sexual harassment in the legal industry

While shocking, the Harvey Weinstein scandal isn’t all that rare. And it’s certainly not limited to Hollywood. Sadly, sexual harassment is far too prevalent in the legal world as well. In fact, there seems to exist a “casting couch” of sorts for people first trying to break into the legal industry.

Here, four people share their stories:

The Yearly Firm Ritual
“When I was 23, I was a summer associate at a big law firm in D.C. I was excited to be a part of the firm and ready to be a part of the team. Partners and senior associates, all men, arranged a number of firm outings where I felt pressured to drink a lot of alcohol.  I was repeatedly hit on, with various degrees of aggression. Two of them—one of whom was married—kissed me.  And then one night when I was working late, one of the partners put a note on my office chair.  The note said that if I didn’t meet him later that night he would ruin my future at the firm.  I crumpled up the note and never met up with him.

That’s when things got really awful. I began to feel depressed, unsure of myself, and unsure of what I truly contributed as a lawyer.  My self-confidence became so low that I didn’t think I could ever get another job—so I accepted an offer to join the firm after graduation.

Meanwhile, the partner who had left the note did, in fact, poison people against me at the firm, leading me to get fewer assignments. I learned this because another partner, who did want to work with me, told me that the other partner was telling people they shouldn’t work with me because I was a slut.  I was eventually called in to meet with the senior partner of the corporate group who told me that I had to suck it up because I was not important enough and didn’t make enough money for the firm to be treated well there, whereas the partner who harassed me did.  It was a particularly awful meeting because I had never told anyone at the firm about the letter. I immediately realized that the firm knew what the partner had done and still supported his behavior.

About 18 months later, I left the firm. Years later, I ran into a man who had been a summer associate at the big law firm with me. He told me that the male associates and partners passed around a booklet that had pictures of incoming summer associates so they could pick the women they planned on attempting to have sex with.  It was a yearly firm ritual, fueled by firm money to pay for the nightly alcohol-driven opportunities to compete for the young women.” —Anonymous

An Inappropriate Interview was Just the Beginning
“While in law school, I thought I had checked every box to earn a coveted spot as a summer clerk with one of the big firms: I was in the top of my class at the University of South Carolina, writing for a journal, and president of Women in Law, an association at the school. At my first interview at the firm, I was greeted by two young, white, male associates. When I—a young, curvy, plus-size woman—walked in, they glanced at each other and didn’t bother to look at my resume sitting on the table before them. Interviews were limited to 10-15 minutes and in that time they asked me where I was from, if I was married, what I liked to drink, and if I was any good at softball. Towards the end, one of them asked, ‘What kind of law do you want to practice.’  I smartly said, ‘I want to litigate. I want to try cases.’  They both laughed and one said, ‘That’s funny. You don’t look like a litigator.’  I paused, shocked, and then said the only thing that came to mind, ‘That’s funny, because you didn’t look like an asshole either.’ I walked out.

Unfortunately, that was just one of many such experiences I’ve had in the legal industry. For instance, I once had one elderly judge who claimed to be hard of hearing. At one hearing, he kept saying I mumbled and he couldn’t hear me. (This was despite the fact that we were using microphones.) He asked the opposing counsel, ‘You don’t mind if I let this pretty young thing approach, do you? I can’t hear her.’ When we both approached, the judge said, ‘At least the view is now really good.’ (He was higher on the bench and could now look down my blouse.) We argued the motion and the judge ruled in my favor saying, ‘Sir, I hear you and you make a good argument, but I think our pretty young friend is both smarter and prettier than you.’ The opposing counsel was so offended on my behalf that he walked me out and said, ‘If you want to report him, I’ll back you all the way. That was disgraceful.’  In the end, I did not report the judge because the senior partner at my firm told me not to as it would ‘make trouble.’” —Alexia Pittas, a litigation consultant and legal research provider serving solo and small firms in the Southeast

An Object He Could Use
“While in law school, all I wanted was to work in one of Chicago’s top firms after I graduated. And even though my grades were mediocre, I believed that my natural talents would shine through. Then, one night I volunteered for a gala for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, where I was introduced to the hiring partner at one of the top firms. After speaking with him for a while, the man turned toward an attorney at his firm and said, We’ve got to get Reese a clerkship.’ I couldn’t believe my luck! The hiring partner made it clear that he thought I was smart, engaging and a worthy cause for his seemingly altruistic endeavors. I believed that I had found a mentor who would take me under his wing. He could help guide me along the way.

That night, he offered to give me a ride home. Since it was the dead of winter in Chicago, I quickly accepted. When he pulled up to my front door, he leaned in and planted a long kiss on my lips. I was lost for words. I quickly fumbled for the door, jumped out of the car, and ran into my building. I was in shock. I felt cheap and dirty. My heart sank. I thought this hiring partner was being nice because he saw that I was talented and had promise. But no, the powerful partner—who was married with three daughterswanted something completely different.

I was so desperate to get a BigLaw job, that I did keep in touch with the partner, thinking he could help me. However, several times he’d try to kiss me and say things like, ‘You won’t give yourself to me. You aren’t serious about your career, and you’re not willing to do what it takes for you to make it.’

I felt like I had no choice. I eventually did start an intimate relationship with this man. However, he still never helped me get a clerkship, a summer internship, or any type of job. He’d say I wasn’t what the firm was looking for. At last, I realized it was never about my getting a job. It was about me being an object he could use.

So I ended the relationship and went out on my own and started a solo practice.  I forged a path where there wasn’t one. Right around that time, I also founded an organization called “B.A.B.E.S.” (Beautiful, Ambitious, Brilliant, Entrepreneurs ) in the Workplace. Our mission is ‘to help millennial women navigate the workforce with integrity’ and ‘to support and empower women who have been sidetracked and derailed in their careers due to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.’ When I created my organization, my prayer was that it could help ensure that young women entering the workforce wouldn’t have to endure the hell that I went through.”  —M. Reese Everson, Esq., an attorney in Illinois and author of The B.A.B.E.’s Guide to Winning in the Workplace: You Don’t Have to Compromise

“Just the Way Things Were”
“Several years ago I applied to a DA’s office in one of the boroughs in New York City. I hadn’t come from a New York law school, I hadn’t interned at that DA’s office, and I had no connections there, so even getting an interview was going to be an uphill battle.

A few days after I turned in my application packet, I attended a criminal bar association meeting, where I networked with some attorneys. One of the people I met was a male executive at the DA’s office who at the time was in charge of training the new classes of ADAs. He looked like he was in his 60s and was very nice and fun. Almost too nice and too fun. I knew I could hold my own in a conversation but wasn’t that great to warrant the attention I was getting. He told me at least a few times that he has a very high position within the DA’s office, so clearly he had some influence.

I followed up on my application with him a few times over the next few months and was so grateful he took interest in making sure that HR would properly look at my application. Then one afternoon before I had even gotten an interview, he called me and left a voicemail asking me on a date to a Broadway show.  I was gutted. I thought he was truly just vested in my abilities to be a good ADA. His call destroyed my world. It made me feel that my abilities and qualifications weren’t actually relevant at all. It was humiliating to me and I felt like a fool and reduced to literally nothing more than a woman he could exert power over because of his position.

I spoke to him one more time to decline his theater offer and never talked to him again. I ended up getting the job, and I would see him  around the office every once in a while. Every time, I would look or walk the other way.

It turns out that this was just a harbinger for things to come at that office. The inappropriateness of that office in terms of sexual innuendos and more in the years I worked there was abysmal. For instance, on numerous occasions, I was out with work colleagues and one of them would slap my butt. Everyone would just laugh. The worst part is that I got used to such behavior and began to think it was normal. It’s ridiculous how caught up I got in the dynamics of the office and how much I let slide because that’s ‘just the way things were.’” —Anonymous