Sydney students develop app to report sexual harassment and bullying in law firms
Main image
Left to right: Marcus Lee, Erica Giulione, Amy Su, Amer Nasr, Urvashi Bandhu. Credit: Louise Cooper/USYD

Students at the University of Sydney are developing a new app that uses artificial intelligence to help lawyers anonymously report inappropriate behaviour in law firms and “challenge the culture of silence”.

Reports of bullying and harassment in the legal sector have become increasingly widespread since the #MeToo movement made headlines in 2017.

A 2018 International Bar Association survey found that half of women and one-third of men have suffered bullying, while one-third of women and one in 14 men have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace.

Australia’s legal sector is considered to be among the worst offenders with around two-thirds of legal professionals having been bullied and one-third experiencing sexual harassment, rates significantly higher than global averages.

The majority of offences, especially sexual harassment, are not formally reported resulting in offenders retaining senior positions in leading firms and chambers.

As an example of the scale of abuse, a 2020 investigation by an independent inquiry found that six former court staffers were sexually harassed by former judge Justice Dyson Heydon AC QC.

Now, five University of Sydney students, from law, media, policy and computing backgrounds have developed Confidant – a soon-to-be free app that will allow legal sector workers to report bullying and harassment securely and anonymously and receive personalised advice on avenues of recourse.

Urvashi Bandhu, a Master of Public Policy student and co-founder of Confidant, explained how, as a recent graduate, she was bullied by colleagues and senior staff.

“I was forced to leave my job, rather than report the behaviour, because there was no anonymous complaints mechanism,” she said, adding that Confidant would ensure other young graduates “don’t have to go through the same isolating experience as I did”.

Fellow co-founder Erica Giulione, a Juris Doctor candidate, explained that young professionals are often reluctant to report bullying or harassment to senior colleagues or HR due to fear of stigmatisation and reprisals.

“We’re worried that our careers could be curtailed by an allegation of harassment – we could get blacklisted, and we may feel that our colleagues wouldn’t support us. This can be a lonely road,” she said.

“We also want to encourage other young professionals to challenge the culture of silence and complicity surrounding bullying and harassment in the legal profession.”

We want to encourage people to get used to recording an event when it happens. This empowers people to take time to decide whether they want to pursue the matter further

Confidant employs an AI-driven chatbot to provide users with a personalised, trauma-informed resource for dealing with workplace abuse and provides definitions of bullying and harassment to help users identify what they’ve actually experienced.

As Giulione explained, Confidant “helps guide you and asks the right questions”, with the user’s answers used to populate a form that can be used as a record of the incident.

“We want to encourage people to get used to recording an event when it happens,” said Bandhu. “This empowers people to take time to decide whether they want to pursue the matter further.

“When people don’t record their experiences, a situation can escalate, unchecked. Repeated micro-aggressions can lead to a macro problem, like bullying, which by definition, requires repeated offences.”

The platform also pre-populates complaint forms, based on users’ initial record forms, preventing a victim from potentially being re-traumatised, due to repeated form-filling, explained Bandhu.

Should a user wish to take further action, the platform provides options for lodging a formal complaint, such as with the employer’s HR department, professional association, or law enforcement, as well as an option to schedule a meeting with a workplace lawyer.

To encourage users to take further action, Confidant includes a matching system to identify repeat perpetrators. If two or more users name the same perpetrator, those users are notified of the existence of multiple reports. Report details are not be shared between users.

“We cannot in good conscience allow lawyers to be subjected to [bullying and harassment],” said Sydney Law School’s Professor Simon Rice, a discrimination law expert who helped the Confidant team.

“Anti-discrimination laws put the burden on the victim to pursue a complaint – young lawyers risk everything when they call out bad behaviour. The burden should be on the law firms to take positive action to protect their workers.”

A “bullying and harassment map” is the next tool to be developed for the app. Based on anonymised data, the publicly accessible map will show how often bullying or harassment is being recorded, its general location, and practice area it is most prevalent in.

Currently a prototype, the students hope to have a minimum viable product available to launch by the end of 2021.

“The prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession is alarming,” said Nora Takriti, Women's Officer, Sydney University Law Society. “Initiatives such as Confidant are an important platform for opening the conversation and challenging the status quo of silence.”

Earlier this month, the College of Law Australia, and The Legal Policy & Research Unit collaborated to develop a set of e-learning modules designed to assist employers to make the changes recommended in the IBA’s landmark report, “Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession”.

The free modules cover information, data, and examples contained in the IBA’s report, with learning supported by quizzes, videos, and animations.

Topics focus on bullying, sexual harassment, the role of individuals in driving positive change, and considering the importance of workplace action.

Among those providing the training are Julia Gillard AC, former Prime Minister of Australia, Dame Laura Cox QC DBE, retired justice of the High Court of England and Wales, Justin D’Agostino, Herbert Smith Freehills Hong Kong, and Sharon P Masling, Morgan Lewis, Washington DC.

“Bullying and sexual harassment have no place in any profession,” said Neville Carter, chief executive officer of The College of Law. “We are committed to providing our sector with the support it needs to improve its culture and practices.

“The 2019 report emphasised that frequent, high-quality training is needed to address inappropriate workplace behaviours, which is why The College of Law is making the modules we have developed in collaboration with the IBA free for all individuals and organisations.”

Main image, left to right: Marcus Lee, Erica Giulione, Amy Su, Amer Nasr, Urvashi Bandhu. Image credit: Louise Cooper/USYD.