The newsletter I send out to subscribers is sent most Friday mornings, but it’s usually written throughout the week before being scheduled the night before. With LegalWeek ending on Thursday, I figured I would get last week’s edition wrapped up and then dip into the news and conversation that came out of LegalWeek starting on Friday so it could be included for next week.
Something odd happened to that plan late Friday morning and into the afternoon. There was plenty of talk about LegalWeek on LinkedIn, but it wasn’t the news I was looking for. Instead, everyone was talking about sexual harassment and assault.
I read many of the posts by people who were there and had found themselves involved, from folks who were at the conference but didn’t know this was happening, and from lots and lots of women in the Legal Tech industry reminding us, yet again, that this has been a large issue in our ranks for years. I wasn’t there, and not having any information to share, I decided not to make any posts myself but support the ones I saw, make a few comments, etc.
As a middle-aged male, I may not have much experience with being harassed at a professional event or in the workplace. But I do know two things.
- I’ve been in the legal industry long enough to know this is not limited to conferences. This behavior has been happening in law firms, vendors, corporate legal departments, and courts for years. I’ve heard enough stories and personally known too many people who’ve had this happen to them to pretend this isn’t an issue. Almost every woman I know has a story, and most of the women I know in the legal industry have one involving working in this industry. When I saw all the posts coming across my feed about this, I wasn’t surprised it happened. I’ve been around far too long to be surprised that someone in the legal industry sexually harassed someone. I was, however, heartened to see it being talked about openly for once.
- I also know what it’s like to exist in spaces that don’t feel safe. Many of you know, mainly because I have another website on the topic, but despite being a middle-aged man who doesn’t get harassed at work or conferences, I was also a child who was sexually abused. I grew up with a violent alcoholic for a parent and another family member regularly molesting me. When women talk about the workplace or a conference space not feeling safe, I am intimately aware of what that means.
As a child, I was not safe in my own home. I won’t claim to know what it feels like not feeling safe in the workplace or at networking events because it’s rare that I’ve ever felt unsafe in that environment, but feeling unsafe is feeling unsafe. There are similarities. As a child, I spent most of my time trying to find ways to survive. I was too stressed out to learn some of the normal things kids learn growing up about how to navigate society and the people in it. I was a little preoccupied with trying not to lose my mind amidst the trauma I was dealing with regularly.
You are not at your best when you don’t feel safe in a space. You can’t be. It’s impossible to expend so much intellectual and emotional energy finding ways to feel some safety and perform at your best. People who don’t feel safe will likely make themselves smaller. They will actively try not to draw attention to themselves. I’m 55 years old, and I still struggle with this. Being the center of attention still makes me feel unsafe. I’ve had to develop coping mechanisms to get where I am in my career, especially being able to speak up publicly. It took years to develop them. As a teen and young adult, I was a much smaller version of myself.
I was beaten up and raped as a child. Everything I did at that age, and for years after, was to limit the amount of attention paid to me. I got straight As because I needed to avoid getting in trouble. I was extremely quiet and shy because I didn’t want anyone to notice me. In the middle of summer, I wore jeans, a T-shirt, and an overtop flannel shirt daily to hide myself. I quit sports. I didn’t sign up for any extra-curricular activities. When I was failing out of college, I didn’t ask for help. I hid. I only desired to be left alone. At work, I didn’t speak up for myself and my ideas. I tried not to have too many ideas. Outside of work, I tried to fit in and do what everyone else did. I was in my 30s before discovering I had a voice and stopped trying to hide it. I’ve been working to refine it ever since. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not. But I’ve not been hiding as much since then. Even all these years later, I will find myself feeling unsafe in some situations. It never goes away completely.
When I look back on those years, it breaks my heart to know that half (probably much more!) of the people in our industry exist as some version of me in my teens and twenties because they don’t feel safe. On a very personal level, it makes me cry for all the pain and hurt out there that I wish others didn’t have to know so well. On a professional level, it hurts all of us. How much better equipped could we be for technology changes and the challenges of working in the legal industry if there weren’t so many women and men who felt the need to hide to feel safe? How much more successful could your organization be if all of these folks felt safe enough to stop hiding their talents and ideas? Leaders, what are you doing to ensure that everyone feels safe? Are you telling them how to hide themselves better, or are you creating a space where they don’t need to?
It matters to the bottom line, it matters in terms of career development, and it matters personally to far too many people who have their own stories to tell about their own experiences in and around our industry. Listen to them. Let it hurt you to hear their stories. Let it be heavy for you to learn the truth. Let that hurt turn into a determination to put an end to it.
And then act. Do everything within your power to make our industry safer for everyone. No one deserves to feel unsafe in a professional event, in a workplace, with coworkers, with industry leaders, or with firm partners. We haven’t done enough to prevent it. We haven’t done enough to assist the people victimized by it.
I wasn’t there for LegalWeek. I don’t know exactly what happened. I do know, though. I know far too many stories and extremely talented people who make themselves small to avoid being the next story. They shouldn’t need to do that. Not here. Not if I can help it.