Lawyers sexually harassing articling students is a thing

Ted Flett

It’s an inconceivable thought for some, including this naïve columnist: a supervising lawyer sexually harassing an articling student. Members of a profession that protects one’s rights violating earnest newcomers.

Despite all the dastardly fact patterns I have read in law school, it took me a moment to reconcile this scenario when the story was presented to me. And yet, as students across Canada begin their mandatory articles, it’s a harsh reality that some will be victims.

Cynthia Petersen, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s discrimination and harassment counsel is frequently reminded of the transgression’s damaging effects. Petersen provides free confidential counsel to complainants of discrimination and harassment against lawyers, paralegals, and articling students in Ontario. She is particularly troubled when the complainant is an articling student.

“When it is students who are calling me, while there are exceptions, generally speaking the students are at the higher end of distress relative to other calls because of their vulnerability,” she says.

Petersen points to the particular “lack of power, authority, and influence” of articling students, which is exacerbated by a shortage of articling positions in Ontario and the keen desire of most students to be hired back.

Reviewing the figures, Petersen says that roughly one in five complainants is a student and the majority are female.

In her most recent activity report detailing the last six months of 2014, Petersen describes a female student whose “allegations included unwanted sexual touching and the withholding of wages for refusal to submit to sexual advances.” Reading the full report made me incandescent with rage.

The violation, at an impressionable time during a student’s entry into the profession, “can be extremely traumatizing in the moment and can take months or years to recover from,” she says.

It is Petersen’s experience and continued hope that her free counselling to students can help to provide resources, options, mediation, and most importantly an ear.

“Calling me is a completely confidential conversation that doesn’t trigger anything,” Petersen says of her services in comparison to law firms’ internal sexual harassment policies that can automatically initiate a process that may not put the student’s best interests first.

And while keen not to alarm students, Petersen warns against assuming certain workplaces to be more prone to sexual harassment than others.

“I haven’t been able to find a prevalent pattern to where harassment happens,” she says. “I’ve seen it happen in any workplace: government, private practice, large firm, small firm, independent firms, in-house.”

While the steady flow of harassment complaints leaves Petersen feeling “disheartened,” the job has many redeeming qualities.

“I feel like the service is really helpful to people and it’s quite rewarding to do this work,” she says. “It gives people another option; an informal way to resolve a problem and a safe place.”

Former complainants occasionally follow up with Petersen with good news.

“I sometimes get notes or letters from people and I hear great stories about how they’ve found a comfortable place to work and how happy they are.”

Josée Bouchard, the LSUC’s director of equity, works on discrimination and harassment prevention through policy development and education.

Despite the number of complaints to Petersen, Bouchard is optimistic that change is afoot.

“I think the managing partners of law firms, for example, are aware of these issues and change is now happening from the top,” she says. “I think there is a cultural shift but it will still take time before we see significant change.”

Despite the slow churn towards equality, Bouchard and others are pushing hard towards the eradication of harassment in the profession.

“This is not something we can turn a blind eye to,” she says. “We are taking these issues very seriously and are trying to address them to the best of our ability.”

Among the efforts is a workshop Bouchard and Petersen host at the University of Ottawa’s law school to help raise awareness, identify harassment, and offer resources. A similar workshop is provided to law firms upon request.

Bouchard issues a stern caution to LSUC members who engage in sexual harassment.

“It is an illegal behaviour that goes against the Human Rights Code and the law society’s rules of professional conduct. And there are numerous avenues of recourse for those who are the alleged victims of sexual harassment, so I think the individuals who are behaving in that way should know that there could be consequences both to their profession and careers.”

I echo Bouchard’s warning. By virtue of law school’s crushing workload, learning curve, and ranking system, many students suffer low self-confidence and can become inherently insecure. Articling is an important and mandatory first step towards practising and finding oneself within the profession. It is a formative time for a student.

Preying on the vulnerabilities of an articling student and sabotaging their development is reprehensible. Don’t do it. If you are doing it, stop and get help. If you’re not sure if you’re behaviour is tantamount to sexual harassment, find out.

And while I am not qualified to advise a victim of sexual harassment, know that there is help and there are resources available such as Cynthia Petersen and her counterparts in other jurisdictions. And if your law society does not provide similar resources, Bouchard says there is a collaborative approach among the law societies to help complainants.

You can contact Cynthia Petersen here.

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