Guess What? The ABA and Bar Associations Are Now Taking Sexual Harassment Seriously

Many lawyers work diligently in protecting workers against sexual harassment and illegal workplace discrimination.  As a result, it would be logical to think that the rules governing lawyers and the legal profession would be explicit in prohibiting sexual harassment and illegal workplace discrimination among member lawyers, not to mention criminal activity, such as sexual assault.  After all, bar associations have numerous rules and regulations concerning how opposing counsel much treat each other, and the court, with respect and professionalism at all times.

You would be wrong.

In an article by the Washington Post, the American Bar Association’s chairperson Mark Johnson Roberts tells the story of a female attorney harassed at an office party by her opposing counsel, who groped her at least twice, despite being told by the female attorney to stop.  The female lawyer tried to file a complaint with the bar association against the opposing attorney, but was told that his conduct, even though it was lewd and criminal in nature, was not against bar rules.

Not wanting the matter to drop, the attorney filed a complaint against the male attorney, who now has a conviction for groping the woman.  Since he has a conviction, the bar now can take disciplinary action, if it desires.

This story exposes a huge hole in the rules governing attorney conduct and professionalism; namely, that attorneys could be free to sexually harass and discriminate against other attorney without any bar repercussions.  Bar associations and governing bodies could only take action following a conviction, which in many instances will be cumbersome, time consuming, and require a great deal of effort by victims.

Changes in the Rules

At the 2016 annual meeting in San Francisco in early August, the ABA voted to amend its rules to make harassment and discrimination ethical violations.  These changes will also cover matters such as discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, socioeconomic status.

Technically, the ABA’s rules are not binding upon any lawyers, as the ABA itself does not have the ability to govern lawyer conduct.  However, as the ABA is a leading guide in the legal profession, its decisions are widely followed by individual state bar associations and supreme courts, who do have the ability to govern lawyer conduct in their jurisdictions.

We expect that the ABA’s new rules will likely be widely adopted in states in the very near future, and welcome the opportunity to stamp our sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and other forms of discrimination from the workplace and all professions.