(Bloomberg) -- Sexual harassment and misconduct claims against U.K. lawyers have increased 58 percent since November, in a sign people may be feeling more emboldened to call-out inappropriate behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority said it has received 19 complaints in the first seven months of the 2017-18 fiscal year compared with 12 in all of 2016-17. The figures, provided to Bloomberg News, are much higher than previous years with only three claims against lawyers reported each year from 2012 through 2015, increasing to nine in 2015-16.
The increase reflects the global focus on inappropriate sexual behavior triggered by Harvey Weinstein. The movie mogul was accused of serial harassment in October, resulting in charges of rape and abuse last month. Since then, a number of high-profile celebrities and businessmen have been accused of misconduct across a range of industries, giving rise to the #MeToo movement that has seen women worldwide speak out about their experiences.
The legal industry has already come under fire on the issue. The global chair and managing partner of Latham & Watkins in London resigned in March and a senior lawyer at Baker McKenzie resigned earlier this year amid separate scandals linked to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Jay Bhayani of the Women Lawyers Division of the U.K. Law Society said that while lawyers should be at the forefront of change, the low number of complaints in previous years may reflect the fact attorneys are often more focused on clients than their own profession.
“Most lawyers are great at speaking up for others, that’s in our DNA," said Bhayani. "We may not be so good at speaking up for ourselves.”
Lawyers are also under pressure for how they allowed their clients to cover up sexual harassment and abuse allegations.
In March, the SRA put out a statement warning law firms that the use of non-disclosure agreements, a common feature in a number of harassment cases to protect people’s reputations, "should not be used to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct."
The SRA is currently investigating Allen & Overy, one of the U.K.’s largest law firms, over an NDA relating to an employee of Weinstein’s Miramax. The firm said that it is “satisfied” that its advice was “consistent with all relevant professional duties” and is cooperating with the probe.
Sue Coe, head of employment at the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the issue of NDAs being used to keep cases quiet had come up “again and again” in research she’d carried out on sexual harassment.
“People talked about the personal impact and about feeling silenced,” she said. “They saw it as a way of employers sweeping issues under the carpet, buying their silence so that they could keep the status quo.”
The problems also extend to barristers, the traditionally white wig-wearing trial lawyers who argue cases in court.
An internal report last year at Matrix Chambers, a prominent group of trial lawyers founded by Cherie Blair, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, indicated that many female barristers had complained of sexual harassment.
Most agree the change in attitude toward sexual harassment complaints is long overdue. In 2015, before the Weinstein scandal, a junior barrister was branded a "feminazi" by a tabloid newspaper after she called-out a senior solicitor on Twitter for complimenting her on her LinkedIn profile photo. The publicity led to a flood of online abuse that included death and rape threats.
Still a barrister today, Charlotte Proudman thinks things may have turned out differently if she’d taken the same stance post-Weinstein.
“I still would have perhaps got a backlash, questions about have I gone over the top, but I don’t think it would have happened to the same extent,” Proudman said. "I don’t think I would have been on the front page of the Daily Mail for two days in a row."
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