Lawyers some of Australia’s worst bullies?

A new study has found that Australia is ranked one of the worst countries in the world for workplace bullying – but what of our lawyers? Some would suggest the profession has a dark underbelly

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.”

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