17 January 2018

Crossing the line no longer: Kate Eastman SC on sexual harassment in the law

Published on 17 January 2018

Headlines have lately been dominated by notable men in every industry accused of sexual harassment, assault, intimidation and bullying. Time magazine regards the issue as the movement of our era naming the #metoo campaign as its Person of the Year.

The legal profession is far from immune from these issues. Insights spoke to Kate Eastman SC, named Change Champion of the Year by the Women Lawyers Association of NSW. Kate will deliver the keynote address for the College’s February event in Brisbane, Lawyers Crossing the Line: A timely discussion about professional conduct issues. The event sheds light on bullying and harassment which affects all those who work in and around the law; other speakers include President of the Queensland Chamber of Commerce who will reflect on an employer’s perspective, and QLS Senior Counsellor who often represents lawyers in misconduct matters.

“Many women lawyers have confided in me or sought advice about how to respond to sexual harassment,” said Kate. “For some women, they have experienced personal, intrusive lewd comments over many years. They endured the harassment hoping that if they ignore it or not take the ‘bait’ it will stop.  It does not. Often for these women, there will be a comment, prank or event that will be the final straw. These women leave their jobs or the Bar. For other women, they experience a single isolated incident of sexual harassment or violence.”

Unfortunately, it’s a well-documented experience. In February 2014, the Law Council of Australia released the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study Report (NARS Report).

“Sexual harassment was identified as a significant barrier to women’s participation in the profession,” noted Kate. For the Bars, the reports results were even more concerning, with 80% of women barristers experiencing bullying or intimidation. “Women barristers were twice as likely as those in private practice or in-house roles to believe they have ever experienced sexual harassment at their workplace.”

Kate believes female lawyers are harassed by other lawyers and clients for a range of reasons.

“Sexual harassment and bullying are an abuse of power,” said Kate. “The legal profession is hierarchical. Seniority and power is an intrinsic part of the culture of the profession. The number of women lawyers has increased significantly but overall women lawyers are still in the minority in leadership and powerful positions in firms, the Bar and the judiciary.

“Women who experience sexual harassment are fearful of making a complaint because of the adverse impact on their jobs, careers and reputations. We know from the NARS Report that women lawyers often did nothing when they experienced sexual harassment.”

As change sweeps many other professions, the legal profession seems poised for cultural shift also. To do so, Kate asserts, is simple.

“Treat work colleagues and clients with respect, courtesy and dignity. Be aware of proper boundaries and respect those boundaries. As lawyers, we should be ready to call out sexual harassment when we witness or become aware of others being harassed.”

The recent public attention on the conduct of high profile men has revealed that sexual harassment may not be random isolated events. Sexual harassment may be systemic and pervasive.

“Women have had enough. They have been prepared to speak about their experiences and others have been encouraged to say ‘me too’.  In the legal profession, as the number of women lawyers increase and women assume leadership positions, women expect to be treated with respect and their work places kept safe.”

By speaking at the College’s event on professional conduct, Kate hopes to increase awareness about what is and is not sexual harassment in professional setting.

“Every lawyer should know about their professional obligations and appropriate professional boundaries. I hope the session provides women who are harassed and bystanders who witness harassment with the tools to take appropriate action without the fear of victimisation or retribution.”


Kate Eastman SC will deliver a keynote address outlining the current law in relation to sexual harassment and bullying behaviour. Ms Eastman will then join a panel discussion on how to deal with these issues in practice. Other panel members include Queensland Law Society Senior Counsellor and expert Criminal Lawyer Glen Cranny and Industrial Relations specialist Theresa Moltoni OAM. Secure your place at the Brisbane event 'Lawyers Crossing the Line: A timely discussion about professional conduct issues' on 20 February with Kate Eastman SC here.