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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

This was the speech delivered by the President at the Pledge Signing Ceremony on Preventing Bullying and Harassment in Singapore’s Legal Profession held on 9 October 2020.

Good afternoon Managing Partners, Deputy Managing Partners, Managing Partner-designates, Chief Executive Officers, Chief Operating Officers

I trust you have been keeping safe and healthy despite the primary and secondary challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Introduction

It may feel like a leisurely and calm Friday afternoon in the last quarter of the day in the last quarter of the year. TGIF. But the simple ceremony to follow makes this and marks this as an important date in history.

This date is in fact already significant in history for two reasons. One of which I shall return to at the end of my speech.

The first significance is Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist who helped build the then USSR’s first hydrogen bomb. On this day in 1975, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his struggle against “the abuse of power and violations of human dignity in all its forms”. Abuse of power. Human dignity violation. Interestingly enough, two of the themes we touch on in today’s meaningful moment in time.

Background

How did we get to this point?

Let me briefly waltz through history lane.

In November 2019, the Law Society hosted a series of roundtable sessions for the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Kieran Pender to speak to our Managing Partners, our Women in Practice Committee and Junior Bar leaders on the twin terrors of bullying and harassment. Kieran is senior legal advisor with IBA’s Legal Policy and Research Unit in London. He authored the ground-breaking global IBA report entitled US Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession issued in May 2019.

The IBA report collated anecdotal and empirical evidence derived from an unparalleled, multilingual survey of 7,000 respondents across 135 countries. The mischief in our global legal profession has now only recently come under sharp focus as the IBA survey and study shows. The challenges to eradicate that mischief are monumental. There are some ingrained attitudes that transcend gender, age, ethnicity, culture and national demographics. It is not just a Gen Y or Millennial issue. No wonder the IBA entitled their report US Too? and did not mince their words in pronouncing that “The legal profession has a problem”.

On 14 November 2019, when we hosted the Managing Partners’ Roundtable, Kieran Pender presented his landmark IBA report. He sensitized us all to the dangers of the hidden scourge of workplace bullying and harassment. These ugly stepsisters had already landed on our shores and so we need to shore up our Singapore defence. In the case of Singapore, the IBA study showed the following:

Singapore

    • Prevalence somewhat lower than the global average
    • Bullying: 48% of female respondents (55%) and 60%* of male respondents (30%)
    • Sexual harassment: 29% of female respondents (37%) and 0%* of male respondents (7%)
    • Use of training below average, use of policies above average
    • Greater underreporting in Singapore
      • 71% of bullying targets never reported (57%)
      • 91% of sexual harassment targets never reported (75%)

Three notable feedback from that forum with our law firm leaders:

  • First, a lack of training in the legal profession on these issues – good management and leaders are critical in driving such efforts forward.
  • Second, we should not be overly legalistic and focus on definitions of bullying or sexual harassment. The focus should instead be on the behaviour itself and how to address those.
  • Third, it is also a leadership issue – the role of senior management is key.

In my Opening of Legal Year Speech pre-COVID-19 (what a world it’s been since then!) on 6 January this year:

We need auditory perception to listen to the voices of the bullied and harassed in the law… . The Law Society will build on the momentum of the eye-opening discourse. We will aim this year for a pledge to be signed by our biggest stakeholders in the professions (also our biggest employers) to make a statement and stand for zero tolerance of bullying and harassment. A cultural change is needed given the zeitgeist of our era. The legal profession will be a vanguard of respect for dignity of persons.

I cannot emphasize that enough. Fundamentally, this is about respecting the dignity of persons in our office.

The Law Society through our Legal Research and Development arm developed and launched a Workplace Harassment Resource Guide on 5 June 2020.

In the foreword to that resource, I outlined the following:

Our vision is that all members of the legal profession (both lawyers and staff in legal workplaces) are treated fairly, respectfully and with dignity. Looking ahead, at an appropriate juncture post-Circuit Breaker, we will target for a commitment pledge to be signed by our biggest stakeholders in the profession (who are our biggest employers) to make a strong statement reflecting their stand for zero tolerance of workplace harassment (including bullying).

So here we are today.

To fortify the answer to the why question. We learnt from the IBA report examples too close to home.

“I see people abusing their power on a daily basis. I try to call it out, but I know I should do more. Law firms reward the wrong behaviour and put people who are good at one part of the job (fee earning) into positions of power and responsibility, when often they are not suited to management at all. The managers become frustrated, and take it out on their teams.”

Female, law firm, Singapore

“This incident occurred when I was a trainee, working for an insecure and over-bearing junior associate. He liked to make a point when, understandably given my lack of experience, I very occasionally missed things. He threatened to make sure I never worked in law again. His behaviour upset me greatly. I was only seconded to work with him for a short amount of time. Eighteen years on, I am a partner in the same firm. Had I had to work for him for longer, I am not sure if I would be.”

Female, law firm, Singapore

These are not dated examples. Nor are the sobering and gripping realities going away anytime soon. Let me share two media reported examples this year involving allegations of first, hitting someone and secondly, hitting on someone.

On July 27 this year, a lawyer pleaded guilty to assaulting one law firm subordinate and using criminal force on another. The lawyer is facing the music disciplinarily. Although the initial complaint had been withdrawn, the Law Society Council resolved unanimously to refer the matters concerned to the Inquiry Panel to initiate the disciplinary action.

In a second example in July, allegations were made on social media (albeit not by the victims) but by a lawyer against another lawyer accusing him of, among other things, abusing young interns or trying to hit on them inappropriately. While the matter has between resolved as between the lawyers last month, there is still an unfortunate swirling cloud in public perception. And that swirling cloud hovers over the legal profession.

Those are the public examples. But the Law Society Council and Secretariat team know of other examples surfacing from time to time of both bullying and harassment (including sexual harassment). We have had to triage some and provide guidance and support on others.

In the run up to today, with news of the larger and medium sized firms signing this pledge, I received a humorous response and a little flak from small firm practitioners.

First, the moment of mirth. In a WA group, a small firm representative said he thought this exercise was a commitment by the large firms to stop bullying and harassing the small firms!

That’s not what this is about.

Two more clarifications:

First, we had a little flak from a few small firms who felt left out of the party. I want to state clearly for the record this is not about accentuating the large firm-small firm divide. The reason why we were requesting the larger firms to sign is because the signing today is not merely symbolic but signifies a serious intent to put processes, policies and procedures in place.

Second, conversely, this is not about picking on the larger firms for special disfavour. Bullying and harassment exist in small firms too. Case on point = the first 2020 example I cited. Bullies and harassers do not pick their victims based on firm size.

I know we are all on the same page, every one of us, on zero tolerance towards any and all forms of bullying and harassment in the legal profession. As representatives of the largest employers in the profession, your standing together in solidarity with other large employers to sign the Pledge will give it gravitas. It will send the strongest of signals to the entire legal profession and to other law firms to ensure that law firm staff and colleagues are treated with courtesy, respect, dignity and decency to promote and sustain proper standards of professionalism.

I take this opportunity to congratulate every single law firm participating in this online pledge signing ceremony.

IBA’s Kieran Pender shares a word of encouragement to us on behalf of IBA:

“The International Bar Association remains committed to addressing bullying, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour in the legal profession. In an era of global uncertainty, respect and dignity at work remain critically important. Following on from the Us Too? report and subsequent global engagement campaign, the IBA continues to strive forward in this space: we have a range of research, training tools and guidance that will be published shortly.

I commend the Law Society of Singapore and its constituent members and law firms for showing commitment to a diverse, inclusive and respectful legal profession. Every single one of us can contribute to positive, meaningful change.”

Kieran Pender

Senior Legal Advisor
Legal Policy & Research Unit

International Bar Association

The legal luminaries present are beacons of light messaging to other lawyer leaders and other professions.

But it’s not just professing, it’s practising. So what happens next?

There is a four-fold commitment to take the following steps within your firm’s HR department in the course of the one-year period after signing the Pledge:

  1. Make available or accessible the Law Society of Singapore’s Workplace Harassment in the Legal Profession: A resource guide for members (June 2020) to all staff;
  2. Develop, implement and inform lawyers and staff of the law firm’s bullying and harassment policy and workplace grievance handling procedures guide;
  3. Provide training for staff on the relevant policies and procedures so that:
    1. staff are educated and aware what may constitute inappropriate behaviour; and
    2. to whom and how such behaviour may be reported or escalated; and
  4. Promote the need for senior management and executive leadership of the law firm to receive appropriate management and leadership training (including grievance handling training) to maintain a work environment free from bullying and harassment.

Conclusion

There is a second reason I had alluded to why today’s date is important in history. Oskar Schindler credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust died on this day in 1974 at the age of 66. His story of course was memorialized in Steven Spielberg’s harrowing classic movie, 1993 Schindler’s List. There is a symmetry in this moment with Schindler’s life. While not so dramatic or traumatic, by putting pen to paper and purpose to pledge, we are saving the lives of our lawyers and staff from the death of a thousand cuts of bullying and harassment.

Every one of us and every Singapore law firm can be an advocate for change for the better. And as we do, we will, ineluctably and inexorably, move towards the holy grail of our legal profession. To be a beacon of light for respect for the dignity of persons. Keep on shining.

President
The Law Society of Singapore