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Networking and the #MeToo movement

Speaker's Corner

The #MeToo movement was brought to the forefront in 2017 following the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The movement is alive and well in Canada.

Patrick Brown resigned as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader in January 2018 over allegations of sexual impropriety toward two young women. Kent Hehr, federal minister of sport and persons with disabilities, stepped down from cabinet over sexual harassment allegations.

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently has been under fire for allegedly acting inappropriately toward a female journalist at a music festival 18 years ago.

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, women, in particular, have been encouraged to speak up about sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement has implications on networking. Networking has been described by workplace trainer Brad Karsh as “tapping into connections you have to help you get the opportunity to get a job.”

Networking is particularly important in the field of law.

If you practise law, odds are that you have spent countless hours at dinners, baseball games, charity golf tournaments, cocktail hours or other events doing just that — networking, making connections  or tapping into existing contacts to get that new file or client.

It is worth considering what, if any, impact the #Me Too movement has on how lawyers approach networking in the legal profession.

Possible concerns around how to approach networking are not limited to practising lawyers and their would-be clients.

Articling recruitment will be upon us as of Aug. 13, and with it, the articling recruitment dinners and cocktail meetings.

In the context of the #MeToo movement, it would be prudent to approach networking events, not necessarily with trepidation, but certainly with alertness and care.

One possible impact of the movement is that there may be additional thought given to whom to invite to events such as baseball games and golf tournaments, particularly if you plan to invite a smaller group of people.

In particular, additional thought may be given as to whether to invite someone of the other gender to these networking events.

What implications that decision process and eventual decision may have cannot be understated. In particular, there is a strong concern among  women that they will be deliberately excluded from networking opportunities.

So, how do we approach the issue of networking in the #MeToo environment? 

The first step should be knowing and complying with the Rules of Professional Conduct.

For example, s. 2.1-1 holds that a lawyer “has a duty to carry on the practice of law and discharge all responsibilities to clients, tribunals, the public and other members of the profession honourably and with integrity.”

The commentary further indicates that “a lawyer’s conduct should reflect favourably on the legal profession, inspire the confidence, respect and trust of clients and of the community, and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Section 6.3 specifically deals with sexual harassment, defining it as “one incident or a series of incidents involving unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

The commentary regarding s. 6.3 is quite clear that the Law Society of Ontario expects lawyers to “respect the dignity and worth of all persons and to treat all persons equally without discrimination.”

Working within the Rules of Professional Conduct is a good place to start.

However, do these general guidelines and principles translate to the practice of networking?

Do we all run in fear and never invite anyone (and particularly anyone of the other gender) to any event, ever?

Do we limit all contact to minimal handshakes or no contact at all? Of course not. Networking should, and can remain, a significant part of the lawyer’s arsenal. 

A prudent and responsible approach to networking entails starting simply and being mindful. Make an extra effort when interacting with others. Assume not everyone is a lover of introductory hugs, kisses and even handshakes.

Think about how your actions may be interpreted, and if you are unsure, err on the side of caution. Be mindful that people have different boundaries and recognize that what one person may be comfortable with might make someone else very uncomfortable. Read your room.

If you know the group of people you are with and are in a less formal work setting, it may be fine to initiate or engage in physical contact.

Otherwise, you may want to limit physical contact. 

When considering the issue of who to invite to networking events, a prudent and responsible approach to avoiding even “the appearance of impropriety” may be as simple as including everyone (what a novel concept!) rather than just one gender over another.

It is important to remember that the basic tenet of networking remains the same. It is simply tapping into connections.

Connections are not limited by one gender or the other. Inclusivity — tempered with a specific recognition of trying your best to make everyone comfortable — will achieve the goal of networking in a responsible way.

Renata K. Laubman is a litigation lawyer with Bell Temple LLP. She has more than 14 years of litigation experience.

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