The #metoo movement has rocked Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C. The legal profession, which for decades was one of the oldest of “Old Boys’ Clubs”, hasn’t been immune. Unfortunately, speaking up about sexual harassment at a law firm can still be risky for long-term career prospects. As a Senior Partner for Legal Recruitment, I’ve seen two recent cases that illustrate how tricky it can be for young women to navigate the job market after leaving a law firm due to harassment.
In the first case, a young woman had been at her firm for only three months before being sexually harassed by a senior colleague. She decided the best way forward was to try to find another job elsewhere, but when I pitched her to clients they were hesitant to consider her because she was “jumping ship” so quickly. She was trying to deal with an uncomfortable situation quietly and without causing a fuss, but to potential employers she looked flighty.
In the second case, a woman had actually filed suit against her former employer over sexual harassment in the workplace. A law firm was ready to make her an offer, but after Googling her name and discovering the suit, they decided not to proceed. The firm could not get comfortable with the perceived risk of hiring a litigious employee.
Changing Firms Because of Harassment: Considerations and Next Steps
Unfortunately, cases like these are only going to become more common as the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum and more employees come forward. Both law firms and candidates need to understand how to navigate the fallout from such cases.
From a candidate’s perspective, the best course of action is to be honest about your situation up front. After discussions with a potential new employer have progressed past a certain point, you should bring up any past lawsuits that could be found on Google, or explain why you are looking to leave a firm after a short period of time. It’s better to explain your reasoning rather than letting your prospective employer draw their own conclusions. In cases like these, it really pays to work with a recruiter. We can advocate on your behalf and explain your situation during the screening process.
From a law firm’s perspective, of course, it’s understandable to be worried about opening your firm up to risk of litigation. But rather than focusing on screening out candidates who’ve spoken up about harassment in the workplace, a better approach is to provide training and guidance to help your employees understand what is and what is not appropriate. Firms also need to have policies and procedures in place to effectively deal with harassment when it does arise so that victims don’t feel that their only options are to leave the firm or sue.
As more victims of workplace sexual harassment come forward, cases like these will undoubtedly become more common. Rather than penalizing candidates for being victims of past harassment, firms must be willing to take a more flexible and understanding approach. The legal industry cannot become more inclusive if it continues to penalize victims for speaking up.
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