The legal profession is plagued with bullying and harassment worldwide. Per a 2018 International Bar Association survey, half of women and a third of men have suffered bullying, and a third of women and 1 in 14 men have suffered sexual harassment at work.
Australia is among the worst offenders: about two-thirds of legal professionals have been bullied and a third have been sexually harassed. The majority of offences, especially of sexual harassment, are not reported.
A group of five University of Sydney students, from law, media, policy and computing backgrounds, is seeking to address this. They have developed Confidant – a free digital platform that will allow anyone working in the legal profession to report bullying and harassment securely and anonymously and receive personalised advice on avenues of recourse.
Brought together at the Sydney Law School 2020-21 Summer Innovation Program, the students range in age from 20 to 27, and are from a range of countries including Canada, Brazil and India.
Anti-discrimination laws put the burden on the victim to pursue a complaint...The burden should be on the law firms...
Sydney Law School’s Professor Simon Rice, a discrimination law expert who helped the Confidant team, said that rates of bullying and harassment in Australian law firms are significantly higher than global averages.
“In the 2019 global survey by the International Bar Association, a female, Australian lawyer is quoted as saying: ‘[The perpetrator] was allowed the opportunity to resign. He has gone on to a successful career at another firm whilst I am left with dealing with a lack of self-worth every day’,” Professor Rice said.
“We cannot in good conscience allow lawyers to be subjected to this harm. Anti-discrimination laws put the burden on the victim to pursue a complaint – young lawyers risk everything when they call out bad behaviour. The burden should be on the law firms to take positive action to protect their workers.”
“The prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession is alarming,” said Nora Takriti, Women's Officer, Sydney University Law Society. “Initiatives such as Confidant are an important platform for opening the conversation and challenging the status quo of silence.”
Ms Urvashi Bandhu, 27, a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Sydney, explained her motivation for the project. “As a recent graduate, I was bullied by my colleagues and senior staff. I was forced to leave my job, rather than report the behaviour, because there was no anonymous complaints mechanism,” she said.
“I’m happy to be one of the co-founders of Confidant, so that other young graduates don’t have to go through the same isolating experience as I did.”
Co-founder Ms Erica Giulione, 26, a Juris Doctor candidate, said: “I worked for a lawyer before starting law school. He valued my opinion, was respectful of my time, and treated me with respect. When I shared my experiences with my peers, I realised it was the exception, not the rule.
“Hearing about the treatment of young lawyers and why they felt they couldn’t come forward about their experiences told us that there’s a really important mechanism missing.”
Ms Giulione explained that professionals, especially those commencing their careers, are often reluctant to report bullying or harassment to senior colleagues or HR due to fear of stigmatisation and unwanted repercussions.
“Because we are mostly young professionals, we’re worried that our careers could be curtailed by an allegation of harassment – we could get blacklisted, and we may feel that our colleagues wouldn’t support us. This can be a lonely road,” she said.
“We also want to encourage other young professionals to challenge the culture of silence and complicity surrounding bullying and harassment in the legal profession.”
Confidant employs an AI-driven chatbot to provide users with a personalised, trauma-informed resource for dealing with bullying or harassment. Questions are targeted to populate a form, through an intuitive conversation with the user. The completed form can be used as a record of the incident.
Ms Giulione said: “The app acts as a confidant, in that it helps guide you and asks the right questions.”
Confidant also provides users with definitions of bullying and harassment, to help users identify what they’ve actually experienced.
“We want to encourage people to get used to recording an event when it happens. This empowers people to take time to decide whether they want to pursue the matter further,” Ms Bandhu said.
“When people don’t record their experiences, a situation can escalate, unchecked. Repeated microaggressions can lead to a macro problem, like bullying, which by definition, requires repeated offences.”
If a user wishes to take further action, the platform gives options for reporting, based on the incident and the user’s background. For example, it could suggest they approach their employer’s HR service, professional association The Law Society, the NSW Bar Association or the police. This includes ways to lodge formal complaints via these pathways, and a booking system to schedule a meeting with a workplace lawyer – if applicable.
“The platform pre-populates complaint forms, based on users’ initial record forms. This prevents a user from potentially being re-traumatised, due to repeated form-filling,” Ms Bandhu said.
Finally, a user can access tailored resources for support, such as a women’s collective or a counselling service.
The platform also entails a matching system that identifies repeat perpetrators: if two or more users name the same perpetrator, those users will be notified of the existence of multiple reports. Event details will not be shared among users. “This may encourage the users to take further action and report the incident to HR (or another reporting body),” Ms Giulione said.
The students are also developing a ‘bullying and harassment map’ as a platform add-on. Based on anonymised data, the publicly accessible map will show how often bullying or harassment is being recorded, its general location (for example, ‘Sydney’), and the area of law in which it is most prevalent.
They hope to have a minimum viable product available by the end of 2021.
About the students
They were mentored by Dean, Sydney Law School, Professor Simon Bronitt, and Sydney Law School PhD candidate Mr José-Miguel Bello y Villarino.
No funding was received for this project. Regarding privacy, the platform’s data will be encrypted and securely stored in the cloud.