The reality of workplace harassment for interns and grads

April 13, 2017
Article Promo Image

Interns’ rights matter, yet some interns continue to face harassment in the workplace. This situation is exacerbated for students of teaching, engineering and law, who are required to undertake practical training in order to be admitted to the profession.

A friend recently told me about how he was bullied while completing his Practical Legal Training (a necessary step for admission as a lawyer) at a boutique firm in Sydney. Michael* was berated for questioning some of the tasks he was given – including supervising the principal solicitor’s housecleaners. The solicitor harshly criticised Michael’s character and performance in an all-staff meeting. Although the solicitor praised Michael’s “balls” for speaking out, Michael was fired within a week.

Inspired by Michael’s gutsiness, and still bitter from my own experiences in an exploitative small firm, I decided to ask the College of Law – Australia’s largest training school for prospective lawyers – what steps they took to protect their students. I asked whether the College would bar firms from advertising on its website if the firms were the subject of student complaints. The College didn’t endorse employment ads on its website, I was told, and “thousands of placements [are] undertaken in NSW each year and [we] receive very few complaints from students.”

How common is workplace harassment for interns?

I knew Michael’s experience wasn’t unique. As a law graduate myself, I decided to ask whether any fellow students had experienced harassment while interning. Unsurprisingly, I quickly received a number of replies.

Daria* interned at a small firm where she was bullied by a junior solicitor.

“The junior solicitor was consistently nasty to me, becoming exasperated and slamming things aggressively if ever I asked follow up questions or did not completely understand a task immediately,” Daria tells me.

“Working with this individual made me feel hopelessly incompetent and disheartened about my future prospects as a lawyer.”

Equally off-putting for Daria were the head solicitor’s actions. Collecting files from his office, Daria was shocked to see porn open on his desktop.

“I can't speculate whether he had left it open intentionally, but as the youngest female staff member, I felt very uncomfortable.”

Working with this individual made me feel hopelessly incompetent and disheartened about my future prospects as a lawyer.

Tamara* also experienced sexual harassment while interning at a major firm overseas. Within weeks of starting, Tamara’s boss – a family man – invited her to dinner.

“They always say that the networking that leads to promotions happens socially, outside the office, so I went,” Tamara says. Her boss soon made his intentions clear.

“After dinner he took me to a live music bar and then forcefully made out with me. Due to concerns for my safety, as I was in a foreign city and no one knew where I was that night, I didn't get mad and reject him for fear of how he might react."

Rather than face her boss the next day, Tamara immediately quit.

Statistics released by the Law Council of Australia support Michael, Daria, and Tamara’s accounts of workplace harassment. Their survey found that one in two women and one in three men experienced bullying or intimidation in the legal field.

While these findings didn’t specify the respondents’ age or employment status, a number of practitioners interviewed cited experiences of intimidation early in their careers, and a belief that bullying behaviours were an inherent part of the “confrontational nature” of legal work.

Why don’t more interns complain?

These stories, and other conversations I’ve had with fellow law grads, reflect the unfortunate reality that workplace harassment has become normalised and a “rite of passage”. This view continues to find a voice. For example, an article by the (and shared by Survive Law in February) stressed the opinion that having thick skin and the “mental fortitude” to respond to workplace abuse is necessary to practicing law. “If you aren’t prepared for this,” the article reads, “you won’t be very good at being a lawyer”.

These experiences further show that harassment is more prevalent than the College suggests, raising the question of why more complaints aren’t being made.

People at the [overseas] firm, including an Australian employee who had been mentoring me, dissuaded me from complaining.

Tamara, Daria, and Michael each cited fear for their jobs or future prospects, and a difficult and indifferent complaints process, as reasons why they didn’t speak out.

“People at the firm, including an Australian employee who had been mentoring me, dissuaded me from complaining,” Tamara tells me. “They implied that I did not want to get on the wrong side of the partner.”

Daria shared Tamara’s sentiments: “I didn’t consider complaining. It was a small firm comprised of three people – the principal solicitor, the junior solicitor, and myself. There was no HR, and if I mentioned it in the office, I’d have presumably lost my job.”

Michael considered pursuing a complaint through the Law Society – the regulatory body for lawyers practising in NSW – but was ultimately put off by the drawn-out investigation and mediation process. He says that mediation is something “I really don't want to go through, especially if it means conflicting with the principal solicitor once again, and then it ultimately not changing anything”.

Although it is difficult to generalise, these stories show that workplace harassment continues to affect some interns. Education bodies like the College of Law, which facilitate practical training, have a responsibility to do more to protect their students.

*To preserve their anonymity, the names and identifying details of the interviewees have been changed.

Nathan Stormont

Nathan is an Australian law graduate, editor, and human rights researcher for Eurasia living in New York City.

Image: Girls official Facebook page