Magic circle associate alleges sexual assault by partner and slams firm's handling of investigation

Allegations detailed in written submission to parliamentary committee investigating NDAs

A former junior lawyer at a magic circle firm has alleged that they were sexually assaulted by a partner at the firm and has strongly criticised the subsequent investigation into the incident.

The claims are detailed in a written submission to the Women and Equalities Committee, published today (9 July), with the lawyer in question asking to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardising ”any future tribunal proceeding or criminal trial”.

In the letter, the lawyer – who has since left the firm in question – states that “the route to achieving a satisfactory outcome is continuing”, and that they “remain committed to the individual concerned being appropriately sanctioned”.

The lawyer says the episode caused “significant harm” to their mental health, and that they felt compelled to agree to a “confidentiality undertaking”, the negotiation of which ”contributed significantly” to their distress.

The remarks were submitted to the parliamentary committee as evidence for its ongoing inquiry into the use of non-disclosure agreements relating to allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the lawyer’s submission, they criticise the firm’s internal investigation of their complaint, stating that “it was clear that the firm was not prepared for, and lacking in the relevant expertise, to deal with a complaint of such a serious nature”.

Following the conclusion of the investigation, the lawyer reported the incident to the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) due to their ”dissatisfaction” with the process. The lawyer adds: “Whilst I am generally encouraged by the SRA in terms of the seriousness with which they continue to handle my own complaint, I remain concerned about the length of time the process is taking. This should be reviewed, and in particular the SRA should consider whether certain standardised time periods within their investigation and tribunal processes could be abridged in exceptional circumstances, such as in circumstances of serious sexual misconduct.”

The submission also calls for law firms to introduce mandatory sexual harassment and alcohol policies, claiming there is a particular need for policies “in large City firms, where there is a culture of excessive consumption of alcohol, and where incidents of sexual misconduct are rife”.  The letter argues for an ”industry standard” for sexual harassment and alcohol policies, “possibly in conjunction with the SRA and rape and sexual assault support organisations”, which law firms could be required to publicly sign up for.

The lawyer in question also argues that when investigating claims of sexual misconduct, firms should “acknowledge that testing the veracity of evidence, to the same standard expected and required in a criminal trial, is neither possible nor appropriate in the employment/workplace context”, and that they should be ”encouraged not to ‘hide’ behind the high standard of proof required to achieve a conviction in a criminal trial”.

Earlier this year, the SRA warned law firms in England and Wales not to use NDAs to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct within their own businesses, in the wake of several sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the profession, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission has told the magic circle that it could take legal action if they fail to take appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Baker McKenzie is currently conducting an external review into its handling of a historic sexual assault allegation involving a senior partner, while a number of other major law firms have ousted partners after allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, Dentons and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

Last year, Legal Week research found that nearly two thirds of female lawyers have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working at a law firm, with more than half experiencing it on more than one occasion. A number of female lawyers also spoke anonymously to Legal Week about their experiences of sexual harassment in the profession, following the research.

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