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Whistleblowing -
A new approach needed for law firms

The legal profession is the latest in a long line of industries facing up to bullying, sexual harassment and other wrong doing.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the International Bar Association recently published landmark research “Us Too?...” exposing its prevalence within the industry.

Whilst not news for many, the research found that 1 in 2 female respondents and 1 in 3 male respondents had been bullied at work and that 1 in 3 female and 1 in 14 male respondents had been sexually harassed at work. More shockingly the report highlighted that 57% of bullying and 75% of the sexual harassment went unreported.

For me the partnership structure is a key factor in why reporting of wrong doing is so low; those striving for partnership or already holding it are loath to speak up and damage their own or the reputation of the firm they represent. However it is the ownership structure that also makes it so important that a good culture is developed.

Silence won't protect you

As we have seen time and time again, news of wrongdoing comes out eventually and the longer it has been allowed to continue, the worse the reputational damage. For all involved recognising the benefits and greater good of speaking up is so important.

The “Us too…?” research may talk of bullying and sexual harassment but it seems likely that if people are not reporting these issues they are unlikely to be reporting other wrong doing too.

Culture change must be driven from the top and even with the right culture employees need to understand the process for raising a concern; clear accessible written guidelines can help.

Make it easy to make the call

Whilst the UK legal profession has channels for raising concerns there is no substitute for having your own independent speak-up line. Whilst they don’t work in a vacuum (you need appropriate policies, procedures and infrastructure, not to mention a supportive culture) they upgrade the quality and quantity of reporting. When all internal options to speak-up have been exhausted, they offer a 24/7 confidential avenue.

Putting your reputation at stake

Human resource teams in law firms often hold the key to deciding whether to introduce an independent line, but it should be everyone’s business. Unreported issues build like pressure cookers and no amount of mitigation can limit the reputational damage when they are exposed.

Acting on concerns early and effectively can save a firm years of work reinstating a previously sound reputation. Building a good speak up programme takes time and multiple experts; the human resources teams, senior partners, compliance and governance experts but together a program can be built that engages employees, supports reporting and fits with the firm’s culture.

What next?

If you’re looking for inspiration on good practice look at the Financial Conduct Authority’s 2018 review of whistleblowing arrangements in the retail and wholesale banking sector. They include some examples of good practice and areas for improvement (read more here).

There has been significant buy-in to improve governance and compliance processes around whistleblowing across all sectors over the last few years. Law firms are however one of the last to shout about the changes they have put in place to ensure a safe environment for their people. Taking action to introduce a speak up program is a good first step to creating an open culture where the workforce feels comfortable speaking up against any type of wrong-doing and may just help the firm get ahead of any reputational damage too.

SafeCall

This article was written for SafeCall - A leading provider of an ethics telephone hotline and online reporting system.

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