“My boss, associate lawyer, told me: + If I or my collaborator, someone spits in your face, you wipe it off and go on your way +”. Amélie* is one of the harassed young lawyers and jurists who are now speaking out in France, supported by new authorities.
Amélie speaks to AFP by telephone, at a time when many testimonies – anonymous – are published on the Instagram account “Balance your law firm” whose aim is to denounce “abuses: sexism, working conditions, homophobia, racism.”
She remained fifteen years as a “lawyer” in a Parisian law firm, until her dismissal in 2018.
In 2015, she plans to have a child: “There relations have deteriorated” with my superiors, she breathes. Remarks moved, leave refused. “I was told that I had become incompetent”.
“I worked 1,000 overtime hours from 2016 to 2018. I was no longer able to do anything except eat and go to work. (…) I often cried, worked with a lump in my stomach”, adds this woman now 44 years old, claiming to have then suffered “three miscarriages because of stress”.
“Maternity is a real brake on the career of a lawyer”, explains Me Valérie Duez-Ruff, lawyer specializing in labor law, who created in 2010 “Moms à la barre”, a mutual aid site intended for to pregnant lawyers, accumulating testimonies.
Me Duez-Ruff started from her experience: “When I returned from maternity leave, my boss told me: + it will quickly get drunk if you leave every day at 7:00 p.m. +. (…) I was to be promoted to lawyer partner, but I was told (then) that my priorities had changed”.
– “Suicidal thoughts” –
Since then, the Council of the Order set up a commission in 2015 dedicated to the fight against harassment and discrimination, the Comhadis.
Elected to the Council of the Order, Me Duez-Ruff, its founder, wished “that it not only be a place of listening, but a place of action”.
A first confidential step “allows you to speak freely: a member comes to see the complainant” in the office. Then a “contradictory” debate can be organized between the plaintiff and the defendant’s lawyer. “It’s often word against word,” notes Me Vanessa Boursado, former secretary of the commission.
If the facts are proven, the lawyer can receive a call to order, or, for more serious facts, a sanction.
“The profession is not immune to these serious deviations which affect all of society. There is no omerta. The commission and the Order want to hear”, assures Ms. Boursado.
Since 2017, the Comhadis has been seized 95 times (58% for questions of moral harassment), which would represent only a small part of the victims of harassment.
According to a survey conducted in 2018 by the Defender of Rights, 72% of women and 47% of men lawyers report having witnessed discrimination against their colleagues.
Asked by AFP, the Paris Bar did not respond immediately.
– The fear of “being grilled” –
Romane*, a lawyer for seven years, chose to set up on her own in September, after being pressured as a collaborator for six years.
Just graduated, she joined a small firm, where the situation is “unlivable”. “I signed a part-time contract for which I only earned 900 euros per month, for 70 hours of effective work per week”, she is still surprised.
After two years, she changed cabinets. “I spent my life in the open because my boss couldn’t afford to pay me.” She also saw “conflicting relationships” there. “I had very negative, even suicidal thoughts. I worked so hard to end up being abused, badly paid, mistreated”.
For a long time, Romane did not want to talk about it: “I knew that I could be burnt out, no longer find collaborations by denouncing the situation”. A friend urged her to use the “SOS Collaborateurs” service set up in 2000 by the Union of Young Lawyers, who helped her.
If the rumors of the corridors are now growing and the testimonies are arriving anonymously on social networks, the referrals to the Council of the Order are not increasing.
“Lawyers are afraid to seize the Order and this fear can be justified”, underlines the lawyer Krystelle Biondi who chairs the association Collectif Défense created in May. Lawyers, mediators and psychologists collect the testimonies of victims and guide them.
Ms. Biondi urges the institution to “hear this fear and remedy it”. “With the pandemic, some lawyers have fired collaborators overnight,” she explains.
“The lawyer is supposed to represent the victims, so it is difficult for him to conceive of being the victim”, notes the pychologist of the Collectif Défense, Karine De Leusse. “Those I saw did not imagine being in this place one day”.
*Names have been changed at the request of interested parties.