Lawyers some of Australia’s worst bullies?

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Researchers have discovered that Australians are some of the worst workplace bullies in the world, ranking sixth when compared with 31 European countries.

The results were explored at the International Commission on Occupational Health-Work Organisation and Psychosocial Factors Congress last month.

Congress chair and researcher for the Australian Workplace Barometer project, professor Maureen Dollard of the University of South Australia, says the results are embarrassing.

“The research found that bullying and violence rates in Australian workplaces are very high, with seven percent of Australian workers reporting being bullied in the past six months,” she says.

But within that, some studies and legal professionals are suggesting that legal workplace bullying is particularly bad.

Last year the Law Council of Australia conducted the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) research to obtain quantitative data and confirm trends in progression, attrition and re-engagement rates of female lawyers.

Following collation and analysis of the data, the report has been recently released. While more specific to females within the profession, the report doesn’t paint a pretty picture when it comes to bullying.

Bullying and intimidation were raised by a number of interview participants as reasons for dissatisfaction in their roles and career, and often came hand-in-hand with behaviours such as game playing and unreasonable aggression, the report said.

This sort of behaviour was also thought to be in part an extension of the confrontational nature inherent in aspects of legal work, and some participants felt that bullying was condoned under this guise.

“As much as I like law firms I do dislike them as well. They are very aggressive and fear-mongering institutions,” said one participant, a female lawyer in corporate legal.
The research reveals that discriminatory behaviour was more commonly identified in large private firms, with 50% of those female lawyers more likely to report experiences of bullying or intimidation than their counterparts in medium or small firms (39% and 38% respectively).

And although female lawyers (50%) were found to be significantly more likely than male lawyers (38%) to have experienced bullying or intimidation, it’s an issue that appears to be encountered by a considerable proportion of the profession, irrespective of gender.

Greg Robertson, general counsel and team leader at Harmers Workplace Lawyers, told Australasian Lawyer that lawyers probably experience higher rates of bullying than some other professions, and it’s “been a problem” for a long time.

The firm regularly sees lawyers that have concerns about bullying in the workplace.

“I think it’s a mixture of factors. It’s partly the personality of people who tend to be attracted to law – they are ambitious and sometimes fairly pushy,” he says.

“I think partly it’s that we’re results driven with leads and there is a temptation to get results at the expense of other people. It’s also a profession where we work fairly closely with people, and when you get people working in close proximity it’s when bullying can happen.”

The grand majority of offenders probably wouldn’t be aware that other feel that their behaviour is bullying, says Robertson.

In many cases they are simply high achievers at the top of their game, doing what it takes to get the results.

More worryingly however, Robertson feels that extreme examples of bullying - as opposed to lower-level, constant and “petty” bullying - are becoming more commonplace.

The only way workplace bullying in the legal profession can be addressed and reversed is if a cultural shift takes place across law firms, he says.

“I don’t think there is any law firm that is going to encourage bullying people, but they really reward results without asking how these results are achieved…it’s indirect but it’s really condoning what they do. If you asked people, they would say that they don’t do that, but in reality I think some firms must have an idea how people got the result.

“We see some appalling treatment, and it just needs to stop. Lawyers ought to know better.”
  • JD on 28/01/2016 1:50:46 PM

    Australian patent attorney firms, particularly the medium to large firms, are also pretty bad when it comes to bullying. I'm aware of cases where partners who feel threatened by high-performing employee attorneys spread damaging rumours about them to ruin their reputations. I'm also aware of cases where partners have verbally and even physically assaulted attorneys.

  • JD on 8/10/2015 4:42:46 PM

    Pushing someone to work harder or stay longer to do work is not bullying, it's life.

  • Louise Steer on 29/09/2015 12:18:02 PM

    This report does not surprise me. Lawyers seem oblivious that their employees are indeed subject to the same legal rights as all other employees. This includes work health and safety. equal opportunity and compliance with all types of leave.

    Having worked in both private practice and in corporations, I can say the culture is radically different. Private legal practice remains firmly in the days of Dickens, with a Darwinian fight for survival. Long hours, excessive demands, insane temper tantrums, gaslighting to undermine employees and make the partner look good, unfair allocation of billings for the same reason, all are illegal and pernicious practices very commonly found in private practice.

    it is no surprise either that commentators are referring to the bullying practices of some legal officers, many of whom delight in flaunting their power. In my experience, judicial officers have improved in that regard in recent years, as a result of better training and a slightly more diverse selection process.

    However, all such bullying and discriminatory activity is not in the profession's best interests, because it undermines public confidence in legal process. My clients have always indicated that they preferred the "firm but fair" approach from judges ie they appreciate the judge keeping control of the courtroom, but they also expect to be heard and treated fairly and with respect.

    Is it really too much to ask that lawyers respect each other, their clients and the publci?

  • William on 29/09/2015 10:07:23 AM

    Bearing in mind that bullying can been described in the most simple terms, as i) repeated act or omission that ii) can cause a person to suffer an injury, it is clear that bullying can take many forms. The behaviour of government lawyers when they fail to represent the Crown and instead represent their department amounts to bullying.

    The worst cases of bullying by government lawyers are clearly identified within the Australian Defence Force. Legal officers in that department have refused to prosecute hundreds maybe even thousands of cases of sexual harassment and rapes and have only just in recent times started to refer matters to the civilian police. They have of course been encouraged to do so due to the impending Royal Commission.

    The Defence Force’s referral of matters to the police is quite surprising as it contradicts the department’s position in the high court case of the Anne Margaret White v Commonwealth ( where the Defence Department argued that they had the right to prosecute criminal offences. In White’s case, she was being charged with sexual offences against five women. By observation, it is fortunate for Ms. White that her application to the High Court failed as the Department of Defence has a history of attacking victims of sexual assault and defending perpetrators and that is why there is an imminent Royal Commission.

    The Royal Commission into the Defence Force will provide a benchmark in addressing the practices of all government lawyers (I can tell you of countless breaches by government lawyers). It is frustrating that they hide behind the department that has a pile of financial support. It is a curious phenomenon as the Model Litigants Rules require that Government Lawyers need to admit when they are wrong and settle as quickly as possible. Further, in NSW lawyers are required to take the Ethics subject in both degree and legal practice subjects to ensure that they fully understand their obligations.

    As for Mary’s comment regarding the behaviour of the Judge in refusing to hear her son’s submissions and the behaviour of the legal aid lawyer) it may be of some value to refer the matter to the Judicial Commission and to the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner. It’s not that I have any confidence in these organisations, but, to have the matter placed on the record at some place could potentially be evidence for a future Commission (Royal or Judicial). (Note: there is an obligation upon the Legal Aid lawyer to be frank in disclosures to the court and it is clear that the legal aid lawyer did not disclose that the first applicant for the AVO was Mary’s son).

    Many Legal officers delay matters purposely to deprive the victim of justice as delays in time can cause detriment to the evidence. Those deliberate delays are known as “contumacious” behaviour. Worthwhile reading on this subject area is the found at:

    Potentially the misbehavior (including bullying) by judicial officers and others can amount to a crime and the proper persons to deal with that level of seriousness are the police.

  • Nikita (soacientImayaswellbedead) Robertson on 28/09/2015 12:02:50 PM

    Its great to see all these comments exposing what goes on in law firms. It has been raised many times in the past but sadly it seems things have not improved, rather they might even be worse. This is a problem with the accepted culture within law firms. Its basis lies within the Dickensian law firm model of the young 'apprentice' lawyer who has to be put through the ringer to 'prove they've got what it takes' as a kind of right of passage. Their reward is that they get to bully young lawyers when they rise from the bottom rung! And yes I think their is a strong tendancy for partners to have that 'psychopathic' personality, which certainly doesn't help. A cultural change is essential and needs to be enforced by regulation (Law Society?) for change to actually occur.

  • Mary on 27/09/2015 4:56:11 PM

    How do think normal people feel i have been 6 times to court with my son who firstly took out a VRO against his violent wife she did the same 9 days later, her legal aid lawyer lied from one court appearance to the next finally after single person expert report they wanted to drop there case (But we were informed this date was to be a trial) on arrival we were told it was a hearing? The Magistrate asked her lawyer if this was tit for tat he replied yes not informing him my son took out the first VRO, He alsoonly every spoke and listened to her lawyer, when my son asked to speak he was told he could'nt. The Magistrate then flicked his eyes threw his pen onto his desk became aggressive and rude to my son. I told him I was leaving his court as that he was a bully he threatened me with contempt of court. So oh yes there are intelligent people in our courts who spit the dummy and act like spoilt children, god help us all.

  • ancient and even wiser lawyer on 8/10/2014 9:39:19 PM

    Dear Older and Wiser Lawyer,

    I totally agree with you about government brutish lawyers.

    They break codes of conduct and hide behind Crown Immunity.

    The coalitions that protect each others behinds is what causes the bullying.

    Government lawyers protect their mates and represent their mattes instead of representing the Crown

  • Ex Litigator on 8/10/2014 4:49:45 PM

    I agree with Ken Lambeth.

    The glee in which the judges got stuck into myself and others has now left with with next to no respect for them (a particular District Court judge springs to mind).

    I'm no longer doing litigation now and couldn't be happier to rid myself of these bitter and twisted people.

  • Support Staff Member on 8/10/2014 12:38:05 PM

    Why does this seem to only target professional staff? I know of a large number of support staff members (myself included) who have been subjected to prolonged bullying by a partner and other staff members (both professional and support) with the management's knowledge and nothing was ever done about it! I think you will find that support staff in law firms are bullied in greater numbers than professional staff members! This also is indemic in medium to small firms as well - not just the large ones!

  • Older and Wiser Lawyer on 8/10/2014 12:17:07 PM

    The article does not deal with bullying of government lawyers - I have experienced petty bullying and dealt with government lawyers (previously employed in private firms) who play mind games to intimidate and unsettle juniors. I wonder if this is because they have been enculturalised to behave that way or is it simply that the law provides good cover for workplace psychopaths?

  • Ken Lambeth on 8/10/2014 10:41:50 AM

    What your article has completely ignored is the unspoken yet often horrendous bullying that legal practitioners are subjected to on a daily basis from certain Magistrates (and sadly sometime some Judges). The impact of this bullying - particularly on young and newly admitted practitioners - cannot be underestimated. I have seen young solicitors reduced to tears by such behaviour. It is even worse as it occurs in a public forum and there is typically no recourse. It is high time this bullying bench culture was confronted and called for what it is. Such public humiliation is not a 'rite of passage' as some may regard it, but rather an entirely unacceptable and cowardly example of workplace bullying and it must stop.

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