How One Lawyer Dealt With an Assault at Work*

Artwork via Tax Collection

Trigger warning: This article includes graphic details of sexual assault

She was finally ready to quit. Her desk was empty, and her confidence was high as she walked into HR to let them know she would no longer be working at the firm.

After years of verbal abuse, assault, and mistreatment, Violetta Malfitani* was leaving her job at one of the top law firms in Manchester, England. Given the way her boss treated her while she was an employee, she was ready for the worst — clawbacks, an ugly settlement, and potentially even being taken to court. In the end, though, it was frighteningly serene — an experience that reminded Violetta that real nightmares often cause additional mental trauma that turns normal experiences into anxiety-inducing moments. But only in facing those moments head-on did, she realize the goodness that laid ahead.

The promise of a legal career

In September 2017, Violetta had just started a job at one of the best law firms in Manchester. Unlike the North American system where you finish law school, pass the Bar exam, and are technically a “lawyer”, in the UK you are bound to an employer. If you don’t complete 2 years as an apprentice at a law firm, you cannot become a lawyer.

Although initially hired in the Manchester office, Violetta’s firm had just opened an office in Leeds, so they sent her there to help set things up from the start. The office was one room — just enough space for her and her boss — and unfortunately, their relationship was far from amicable. Violetta noticed her boss drinking a lot at work and had to deal with his numerous mood swings. He’d scream at everyone for any little mistake, and often that person was either Violetta or a food delivery person. All of these things made Violetta extremely uncomfortable, but knowing she needed this company to complete her law school requirements motivated her to ignore the toxic behaviours, keep her head down, and do her job.

Sexually assaulted one month into a two-year contract

One month into her placement, things went from bad to worse. Violetta accompanied her boss to an important morning hearing in Manchester, after which he insisted the two of them go out for afternoon drinks. Drinks turned into an early dinner, which turned into more drinks — all before 6 pm. Uncomfortable with the situation, and knowing his past behaviours when alcohol was involved, she decided it was time to go home.

In the subway back to the train station to head to Leeds, her boss suddenly started yelling at Violetta at one of the stops and told Violetta to “get the f**k off” of the subway. Still carrying all the court documents, she minded the gap and hopped off, thinking he was about to ditch her. Instead, he got off the subway as well and walked her straight to a strip club.

Around 7 pm, they walked through a dingey strip club door and Violetta noticed there weren’t many other people there. Her boss immediately demanded a private dance, in a private room, and made Violetta come with him. While watching the dance, he began groping — and trying to make out with — Violetta. Thankfully, it couldn’t go further than that: the dancer told Violetta that “her boyfriend” was too drunk and she had the bouncer walk them out.

Shocked by what happened yet unable to quit for fear of losing her whole career, Violetta tried even harder to put her head down and focus on work. Unfortunately, that made the following year in Leeds absolute hell for her. Not only did she have to continue working with the man who sexually assaulted her, but his toxic behaviour persisted. This continued all the way to a party at the Leeds office. While Violetta was cleaning up, she overheard a senior woman-identified lawyer speaking with her boss about how the two of them had slept together. This furthered Violetta’s fears of coming forward about her experience knowing that if she was to make a complaint, one of the most senior people at the firm was sleeping with her assaulter.

“You’re just in survival mode”

After a year of sticking it out, Violetta was finally able to transfer back to the Manchester office under the guise of wanting to move back in with her family to be close to ageing grandparents. At first, the move brought her peace. She was reunited with friends, colleagues, and most importantly, did not have to work directly with an abusive boss every single day. However, as months passed, she began to reflect more on her time in Leeds.

“You’re just in survival mode, making excuses for how it’s fine — oh whatever — all bosses are crazy*,” said Violetta. “Then you almost start to feel wrong. It hits you how wrong it was.”

Editors note: At Bloom we are aware that the word crazy* isn’t inclusive and further stigmatizes people with mental illness, as well as those without, the use of the word crazy in any context trivializing very real conditions, undermining peoples individual experiences, and contributes to harmful stereotypes. This is Violetta Malfitani* story and one that we thought was important to share. We know it’s important that the words and language are shared as they were shared with us.

It was this realization that motivated Violetta to want change, but also led to a cycle of overthinking, overanalyzing, and a fear of retaliation by her boss and the directors of the firm. In particular, she was afraid they would claim defamation and clawback Violetta’s school fees the firm covered, resulting in her having to pay $50,000 she hadn’t planned for. All of these concerns cycled in her head for the next 24 months until finally she reached the last hurrah of her contract — final exams — and qualified as a lawyer.

Violetta finished her exams on a Friday. The next week, she spent Monday and Tuesday secretly packing up her desk, dropping off her personal items with her mom after work. Wednesday morning, Violetta walked into HR and informed them of her desire to quit. She shared her horrific experiences both with HR and the senior lawyer who was sleeping with her boss. She expected them to blow up: instead, they were understanding and tried to think of a solution to make her stay. However Violetta said her mind was made up, and she was able to leave the company in peace. Nothing further happened.

Be prepared, but don’t overthink it

Although her quitting process was difficult, ultimately Violetta got away from the company that suffocated her for years. Even better, Violetta now works for an amazing boutique law firm — a job she had secured, by chance, just before quitting her previous role. However, she said she was ready to quit even without a job lined up — she was only focused on surviving until she could get her credentials.

In the end, though, the calmness of the quitting made her fear that she wasted so much mental energy worrying about the worst-case scenario that never passed. Looking back, she realized that she faced legitimate trauma, but also that after preparing for the worst, you have to do everything you can to find joy elsewhere in life. If you don’t, it drains you.

“We make quitting a big thing,” said Violetta. “Prepare for the worst, but try to not allot that much mental time to it. It’s such a horrible drain to always think of the worst-case scenario.”

*names changed to protect anonymity.

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