The #MeToo Movement and Law


February 22, 2018

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It’s official. The #MeToo movement has hit Canada. It is sweeping politics and has hit the media sector as well.

It is unlikely that any major industry will be left untouched by this powerful movement. So some have been asking — when will #MeToo hit the legal sector? It is hard to find any woman in law who hasn’t experienced some sort of sexism. But law is a discreet industry: lawyers, by training, keep things quiet. I think it’s unlikely that the #MeToo movement is going to affect the sector in the same way it has impacted other industries.

That said, the Law Society of Ontario is alert to this movement. It recently sent an email to all of its members, reminding us of its Discrimination and Harassment Counsel Program. This program confidentially assists anyone who has experienced discrimination or harassment by a lawyer or paralegal.

This program is one of the few windows we have into harassment and abuse in the profession. It publishes semi-regular reports about the complaints it receives. In its most recent report, which details complaints issued in the second half of 2016, the anecdotes are striking. There is, for instance, the female articling who reported she “was sexually assaulted by her male principal at an after-hours work-related social event.” There is the female lawyer who complained about “a male opposing counsel’s paternalistic and sexist communications.” And then there is the female articling student in private practice who reported that her firm’s partners “mis-handled her complaint about a sexual assault by a client and committed reprisals against her for having made the complaint.”

It would be interesting to know what the outcome of these complaints was — and if complaints have spiked in recent months.

I anticipate that the greatest impact this movement will have in the legal industry is a subtle shift in workplace cultures. Law firms may be taking a look at their own internal sexual harassment policies to ensure they are effective and up-to-date. There may be less tolerance given to behaviour that would have been brushed off several years ago.

One of the most interesting things about the #MeToo movement is the timing. Why now? The major waves of the feminist movement happened decades ago. Women have had legal protection from sexual harassment in the workplace for years.

The timing likely has to do with the fact that women have finally reached a critical mass in power positions in the workforce. There are more women CEOs, presidents, partners and executive board members than ever before. This creates a more supportive environment for women to come forward with allegations of misconduct.

I believe our social-media culture has also played a role. People have gotten used to sharing just about everything on social media, including sensitive issues that were once stigmatized (like mental health). There is something very empowering about being able to share your story in your own words, on your own terms, which many of the more prominent #MeToo champions have done. The act of sharing personal stories online creates an instant community of support when others share your post, comment positively and “like” it.

There has been criticism of the #MeToo movement. Some have called it a witch hunt and have complained it promotes a presumption of guilt. All major social movements that come in with a bang face push back. I think it’s is a fair point that there is a certain “mob mentality” that the social media world tends to facilitate. Due process and fairness are important and cannot be overlooked.

But on the whole, this movement will probably have a bigger impact on women’s rights and equality than anything else in the past 30 years. And it’s about time.

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