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President's Message - November 2017
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“Leadership Means Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment”
Olga Álvarez, Lawyers Club President 2017-2018

    Sexual harassment is one of the top four reasons why women leave the practice of law. If we want to ensure that women can succeed in the profession and lead within our community, eliminating sexual harassment in the practice must be a goal. For most women, it is coupled with other issues like lack of support within the firm or agency, or the inability to receive interesting work that ultimately impacts their salary. Though the exact effect of sexual harassment cannot be measured, we know that as many as two-thirds of women lawyers and about one-half of female court personnel report experiencing or observing sexual harassment.
    Furthermore, the statistics paint a bleak picture because sexual harassment occurs more often in law firms than Fortune 500 companies. And of the legal fields, litigation has the most complaints. Why is it so rampant when as a society we assume that women lawyers know their rights and that all attorneys are officers of the court? One reason is that law firms tend to be a breeding ground for sexual harassment claims because of the number of hours that are spent and required when working on an important case. Often young female associates are working with older male partners late into the night week after week, month after month, both of whom are away from their families. This work schedule eats away at the professional environment and presents a situation where office rules are set aside. Another reason is the autonomy of the partner: the partner’s belief that he can do anything coupled with the fear among the other partners that this rainmaker will leave and take business elsewhere. Finally, there is little recourse for this behavior because many women fail to report out of a justifiable fear of ridicule or retaliation. Those who complain are dismissed as hypersensitive or “can’t take a joke,” and are subject to blacklisting. The demotions often happen after reporting. For the woman, it is painful to report the harassment, then to be later accused of lying. It is further complicated by the fact that many employers require a witness to make a valid sexual harassment claim which many victims do not have. Moreover, well under ten percent of the women who experience sexual harassment report it, and of those, fewer are able to afford the financial and psychological costs of litigation. As for women of color, the tone of sexual harassment is almost always associated with race or ethnic stereotypes. Mix it all together and law firms become a place where harassment is likely to happen without any real choices for the victims.
    Unfortunately, sexual harassment is just as likely in a large firm as it is in a small firm. However, when more women are employed as attorneys within a firm, there are fewer reports of sexual harassment, whether the practice is large or small. It appears that in firms where there are larger numbers of women, the firm culture is one of respect including a written policy of zero tolerance. There is also recognition of a vast gray zone of behavior that might be interpreted as sexual harassment. Because we know that seventy-five percent of subtle sexual harassment (inappropriate comments) escalates over time to actual sexual harassment. Being able to handle the gray zone is critical.
    Are you waiting for this paragraph to offer a solution to the problem? I wish I had the answers and a magic wand to implement them. But like anything, it takes every one of us to change the law firm culture. Lawyers Club has begun the dialogue to search for answers. On November 3, we will hold the Solutions Summit: Eliminating Sexual Harassment, Sexism, and Bullying in the Workplace. The solutions include a shift in law firm culture, better sexual harassment policies within firms and agencies, the courage to implement those policies, as well as the demystification of the reporting process. We must start somewhere. Eliminating sexual harassment from the legal practice workplace plays a critical role in our goal to place more female lawyers in leadership positions. Please make a commitment to start today by reviewing your own firm’s policy or by supporting your fellow colleague who made a report. Take action and change the paradigm!

Olga Álvarez is co-founder and shareholder of Heisner Álvarez, APC in La Jolla. She is a Certified Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law and is president of Lawyers Club.
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info@lawyersclubsandiego.com

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