#MeToo Hits London's Historic Legal Center as Attorney Speaks Up

(Bloomberg) -- The #MeToo movement, which has seen women speak out against sexual harassment around the world, has reached the center of London’s historic legal district, where a top attorney spoke out Thursday about her own experience and said others were suffering too.

Jo Delahunty, a senior trial lawyer who specializes in child and family cases, told an audience in the city’s Barnard’s Inn hall -- a setting made famous by Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations -- that power imbalances in the profession had paved the way for some women to be mistreated.

When she was a junior lawyer, her experiences ranged from being whistled at in her workplace to arriving at a hotel with a senior colleague on business, to find the man -- 30 years older than her -- had booked them a double room.

“I was confronted with a situation there and then, where I had to decide what to do,” and was aware that saying no could harm her career, she said. “But I did say no.”

Calling out

Other female attorneys have shared similar stories with her, and some men have also told her they’ve been harassed by men at work, she said. Their experiences are as recent as this year, suggesting the problem hasn’t gone away since her days as a junior. Her speech on Thursday evening was the first public lecture on the subject that she knew of, she said.

“It must be called out. It is unacceptable,” Delahunty said in her speech. “We can no longer say that at the bar, this is not a problem we have to grapple with.”

Since assault accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked global outrage last year, several high-profile individuals have been accused of misconduct across a range of industries worldwide, giving rise to the #MeToo movement.

‘Based on Trust’

While Delahunty doesn’t think sexual harassment is worse in her profession than in others, she said, the historic quirks about how the English legal system works can leave people vulnerable.

“We are a collection of individuals called barristers who are self employed, who band together in a set of chambers, and we operate in an environment which is not corporate, which is based on trust,” she said.

In England’s legal system, the role of an attorney is divided in two. Barristers -- Delahunty’s profession -- argue in court, while solicitors provide legal advice from their offices.

Young lawyers training to be barristers -- known as pupils -- start out by shadowing a senior barrister, known as the pupil supervisor.

“They become a unit,” she said. “Where one goes, the other follows.” While that closeness can lead to lifelong friendship and support, it “can also be the recipe for unwanted and inappropriate attention or comment,” which leaves young lawyers unsure where to turn because their supervisor has power over their career, she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.