When my brother and I were young blokes coming up through the grades at our cricket club, a drink or three after the game was pretty close to mandatory.
The combination of a long day in the sun, too little water and the particular brainlessness of young males meant that the chances of things getting out of hand were pretty good.
Funny thing is, they rarely did, because there was another factor in the mix: teammates looking out for each other. The older, wiser heads at the club kept an eye on things, and if someone was getting a bit too silly they would sit him down in the corner with a jug of water and tell him to pull his head in. Anyone who was too far gone was bundled into a cab and the driver given instructions that he was going home, and nowhere else.
Sadly, in the legal profession we do not appear to have the same attitude. Many of the terrible stories of sexual harassment – and even assault – have a common theme: lawyers getting plastered.
Recently, the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England fined a solicitor £10,000 for touching the leg of a junior paralegal on more than one occasion, as well as rubbing her back and kissing the back of her neck. The incident happened at a wine bar after an all-day drinking session.
Reports of the incident noted that the man was spilling wine on other people and having difficulty speaking; it was also reported that, “Colleagues present said the situation had been especially uncomfortable because the client was also there.” Did it not occur to any of them to do anything about it?
Had a ‘colleague’ – and given the lack of action on their part, one uses that term with some reservation – thrown him into a cab as soon as it became apparent that he was going too far, the young girl might not have suffered the assault. Given that she ended up changing jobs, it is clear that she suffered a significant level of stress and trauma from the incident. No doubt she would have preferred the incident never happened, and took little comfort from the solicitor’s fine; prevention would have been much better than punishment.
Standing up and intervening when these things happen – and preferably, before they happen – is one of the obligations that comes with the privileges of our profession (and being a decent person). Guidance on just how to do this can be found in the QLS toolkit on dealing with bullying and sexual harassment – particularly the third module on “Being a bystander – what can I do?”.
Ours is a profession built on collegiality, and we are also well-versed in having difficult conversations; it should not be too hard for us to step in before things go south in these situations. Networking drinks are part and parcel of plying one’s trade as a lawyer, and we all need to moderate our intake to suit the situation. When someone is failing to do so, it is up to the other lawyers there to take action before something goes wrong, rather than watch it all unfold and gossip to the press afterwards.