“So, should I bring a case?” I hear you ask. As with all things in the law, the answer is “It depends.” (Now you know the secret to why people love lawyers so much!) When someone comes to me and asks, “Do I have a case?” my initial thought is that the person has a pretty basic misunderstanding of what it means to use the law. You always have a case. I could sue you for taking breaks while reading this blog. I would lose the lawsuit because it’s not illegal for you to take breaks, but if I wanted to spend the money, I could still file a lawsuit over it. Then, you could sue me for filing a frivolous lawsuit, and we could spend all our days filing paperwork. Yay! If that’s how we want to spend our time. So, yes, you have a case. Whether you should bring a case is another question.
The law is one way to set consequences for someone’s harassing behavior, and sometimes it is a really important part of a career defense plan. Sometimes, it is a really, really effective way to set a consequence. It is reporting to the next level of authority (an agency or a court) and that authority has the power to hold your harasser accountable. Your harasser could go to jail or could have to pay money for what he did.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why things don’t work out that way. You call the police, and they don’t want to get involved because you don’t have a restraining order. You talk to other lawyers, and they say that it will be difficult to prove what’s happening to you because you don’t have witnesses. Or, they say to call them back if you get seriously hurt or lose your job because of the harassment. These are really common problems with legal claims and often discourage women from advocating for themselves at all.
The reality is that the justice system is purposely set up so that it is very, very difficult to put someone in prison (unless it’s a drug-related crime and they’re black, but that’s a whole different story). The law puts a lot of expectations on victims as to how they report, what they report, what they document, and how they present in court, in order to take away someone’s freedom. I don’t necessarily disagree with this in theory, but it is a system set up to protect men from the power of the government, not set up to protect women from men. So, when you are using the justice system, whether criminal or civil, you need to be very strategic in the way you use it.
What I see is that all too often this is prohibitively overwhelming for my clients, even if they have support. When I see women trying to navigate this system alone, I am never surprised to see them give up. There are supposed to be support systems in place like a victim services office in the district attorney’s office or a sexual assault support agency or a women’s shelter. But, these services are so overworked and understaffed that they rarely have time to put attention to your individual issue.
Then, when you hire your own attorney, that attorney has been trained to diagnose whether your situation falls into a very specific set of parameters set by the law to determine if you get money. The attorney may say, “Well, there’s no insurance,” so it is not worth bringing a claim. Or, the attorney may say, “The law doesn’t apply to this situation, unfortunately.” And those could be pieces of important legal advice.
But, it does not mean that is the end of your experience or your experience just goes away. There is always something you can do to defend your career, and to move forward to use your experience as a platform for the next step of your life. I’m not being optimistic in saying that. It is grueling work. And you are up to it. It is your work to do. Whether or not you have a legal claim, whether or not you want to bring a legal claim, it is your work to do. With help.
Should you bring a legal claim? Yes, if that is the next step to set consequences and leverage your purpose in life to take you to the next level of who you were meant to be. If it is the best way to defend your career, yes, you should file a legal claim. You will be a hero for your community, even if they don’t appreciate it.
Or, no. If filing a legal claim is torture and a way to keep you involved in the harassment you’ve experienced, then, no, you should not file a legal claim. If it will entangle you in years of expenses and drama and stress, if it will keep you involved in seeing your harasser and tied to him, then, no, you should not file a legal claim.
The trick is that in almost every legal claim, both experiences can be true. If you are happy with your reason for filing a legal claim, then you are in the best position possible to make a good decision.
When I first became a lawyer, I was very, very unhappy. I loved my clients, don’t get me wrong, but they had been through horrific experiences, and I was not sure I was actually helping them. I would write letters and complaints describing that their lives were over because of their trauma, and if they were lucky, they would get money. Our office would give them the money and basically say, “Congratulations! Your life is still over, but here’s some money!”
That did not sit right with me for a number of reasons. First, I did not really believe my clients’ lives were over, no matter what trauma they experienced. I knew my clients were resilient, but I didn’t know how to help them access that resilience and recover. I knew I wasn’t their therapist and I didn’t want to be their therapist. I didn’t know it then, but I wanted to help them take their trauma experience and create the exact life they wanted in spite of it (or even because of it). I loved watching the strength and courage my clients had in standing up for themselves, but I didn’t want my only contribution to their lives to be getting them a little bit of money (if they were lucky). In bringing a civil legal claim, all there is to work with is money, but every amount of money seems small and trite compared to the gravity of a trauma experience. My clients were great warriors, and I felt like I was throwing some dollar bills at them for their trouble.
Recovering money for my clients is an important part of my job, but it is not always possible, even with deserving clients, and it was not enough.
I want to contribute to my clients’ growth through their experience of harassment and trauma. I want my clients to actually end harassment in their lives for good and move on to greater battles and put their energy into creating what they were meant to create. I want them to defend their careers from harassment and thrive in fulfilling work. I have seen my clients come out on the other side of a legal claim completely transformed from victim to warrior. That is what I want to see for you.
The real reason to talk with me or another lawyer is to take control over your circumstances and make sure they are serving you and your career. Traditional law will diagnose whether you can bring a claim for money in court, and there are thousands of good attorneys around the country who can help you figure that out. That is not enough for me. I can help you with that, but I also want to help you strategize how to take the most power and control over your life and create exactly what you want.
I want to see you take the ultimate step of resistance and grow to the next level of who you can become.
I was talking with a colleague about a client who had attempted suicide after a sexual assault. In that year, I worked with the highest number of clients so far who let me know they had actually made suicide attempts, and I also had the highest number of people tell me that our conversations helped them resolve suicidal thinking and move forward. Intense! I was talking with my colleague to find out what she thought about how my client’s suicide attempt might affect her legal case. Unfortunately, it was something the jury would probably need to hear about in my client’s case. My colleague said, “Well, who hasn’t thought about killing herself?”
That comment really struck me because I had to agree that it has become incredibly normal, especially for women, to practice self-harm, give in to defeat, and even attempt suicide. No wonder, too. Everything outside of us in culture tells us that if we work hard enough, we can have whatever we want. So, when we face confusing messages that demean us for trying to have what we want and being women at the same time (and even worse if you are a woman of color), it is easy to think that we just don’t belong and there is something wrong with us. “Why is this happening to me?” we ask, as though there is something we’ve done to create the sexism in our lives.
That is the vulnerable place that many of my clients are in when they come to me for career defense training. They have tried ignoring harassment, have quit jobs and relationships to get away from it, and most of them have even tried some form of counseling therapy. But, they still find themselves wondering if the harassment is their fault and worrying that their trauma means something is wrong with them. Despite what they have tried, they are often telling their story in a way that blames themselves for other people’s harassing behavior.
Whether my clients decide to make legal claims or not, in my career defense trainings, I work with them to practice the skills to end harassment for good. I often see my clients go from being their own worst harassers to strong self-advocates. Seeing them develop actionable plans for ending harassment in their lives and creating what they were meant to create is more valuable than any money I can recover for them.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).