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MeToo and the pressure of keeping quiet in law

As a young, caucasian, cisgender, (gay) male lawyer, I have no experience being on the receiving end in the legal profession of inappropriate sexual remarks, conduct or contact

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As a young, caucasian, cisgender, (gay) male lawyer, I have no experience being on the receiving end in the legal profession of inappropriate sexual remarks, conduct or contact. I am also not in a position to shed light on what frequency male or non-binary members of the profession have endured sexual harassment or assault in the profession.

I wish that based on that, I could say I have nothing to contribute on this topic.

I wish I could say I have never had young female lawyers and articling students pull me aside to confide in me serious incidents of sexual harassment or assault they endured in practice or during their articles.

I wish I could say that those who confided in me found some measure of relief by achieving some measure of justice in the circumstances they endured. Sadly, an example of comeuppance evades me.

As lawyers we hear all manners of things from clients on different topics and have in all but the most exceptional circumstances, professional obligations to hold those statements entirely confidential; to keep what is told to us silent. Keeping silent where friends reported these situations to me was not a professional obligation, but it was insisted upon by those confiding in me. While I was able to assist by lending an open ear, offering support, insisting they were not broken or alone, and highlighting resources that may be helpful, I was not able to reverse the pain they felt or help them see justice for the positions they were placed in, the damage their careers suffered, or the jobs they lost.

In the 7+ years since I began articling and was called to the bar, I can recall having these conversations with four individuals. This number is for context. I do not present hyperbolic visions of the frequency of this behaviour in the profession; however, a single instance is too much. Each time is a tragedy, and in a profession as storied and honourable as ours, it is an affront we should all feel and guard against.

This #MeToo watershed moment was a long time coming. As Chair of the CBA Young Lawyers Section, I want young lawyers across the country to feel supported and know that any sexual harassment or assault at the workplace is not normal, not endorsed, and simply not okay. I also want them to know that they are not alone.

Recent events have demonstrated this publicly and loudly in different industries, though I acknowledge we have yet to see it bubble to the surface in the legal profession in a public, “breaking news” bulletin. My experiences tell me that does not mean it does not exist in law, but rather that there is overwhelming pressure to keep it quiet. This is especially true for articling students and young lawyers who are in especially vulnerable positions vis-à-vis their firms. Without clients, expertise, and “a name for themselves” – not to mention already being in an anxiety-laden role with high expectations to meet and possibly  having few-to-no senior female lawyers at their firms to seek guidance from – these individuals need the support of law firms to put in place structures which encourage and enforce appropriate workplace behaviour, create an appropriate reporting mechanism for instances of sexual harassment or assault, and a timely, confidential method for investigating them.

Furthermore, it is up to us as colleagues, particularly male colleagues, to call out situations where inappropriate behaviour is seen or reported and ensure something is done about it. This behaviour cannot be swept under a rug. It is up to us to help them take a stand should these tragic circumstances develop.

It is my hope that the #MeToo movement has resulted in a tidal shift that will not recede, but rather will expose and wash out sexual harassment and assault from the corners of all industries and professions, including ours. We owe it to the upcoming generation of students and young lawyers to ensure this ends, eradicating the need for #metoo2018, #metoo2019, #metoo2020, and so forth campaigns. 

Preston Parsons is a lawyer at Overholt Law and is chair of CBA Young Lawyers.