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03 March 2010
Sydney Lawyer Faced Age Discrimination and Harassment at Sydney Legal Firm that made her ill
Former Freehills lawyer Nicole Stransky says that she was bullied. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
A FORMER lawyer at Freehills is alleging the high-profile firm discriminated against her due to her age in the latest case to highlight claims of poor working conditions at law firms.
Nicole Stransky, now 50, was employed at Freehills from 2006 as a first-year solicitor in competition law after a previous high-level career in human resources. Ms Stransky said she was bullied and harassed during 2008 and 2009 to such an extent that she had a severe deterioration in her mental health and even had suicidal thoughts.
Her case, now in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, is alleging discrimination on the basis of age, employment activity and her impairment. An earlier unfair dismissal claim was confidentially settled after her job was terminated while she was on sick leave in April last year.
Ms Stransky alleged the partners who supervised her - including the former head of the Trade Practices Commission, Bob Baxt - excluded her and isolated her after she raised concerns about her career development with management in early 2008.
A spokesman for Freehills rejected the claims and said they worked hard to support diversity in the workplace: ''We strongly reject any claim that we have treated her unfairly. We're not in a position to comment on these matters as they will be before the courts.''
A psychiatrist's report on Ms Stransky, commissioned by Freehills in late 2008, found she had a major depressive disorder with anxiety, panic attacks and features of traumatisation. The report described her as ''highly intelligent, open, honest [and] reliable'', and added, ''I had no reason to doubt the reliability, validity, veracity, accuracy or consistency of her account.''
Ms Stransky said she might never be able to work again as a result of the experience as she was still very ill.
But her working career at the firm started well and her initial one-year contract was converted into a full-time role after just six months at Freehills.
''Certainly during the first year or the first 15 months I was blissfully happy, one of the best working years of my life,'' she told The Age.
But she said the problems started once she spoke to human resources in April and May 2008 and told them that younger colleagues were getting more work and that she was being excluded by her partners. ''I did it appropriately, I did it respectfully … my younger colleagues were getting most of the client [billable] work, which I can substantiate with these [work] utilisation reports.''
After that, the work allocated to her dried up to such an extent that she had little to do and eventually no billable work, she claims.
Ms Stransky alleged that her coach and supervising partner, Chris Jose, spoke to her in an aggressive manner with cutting personal remarks on several occasions after she challenged the lack of work.
Later, when she returned from six weeks' sick leave, she said she discovered that Mr Jose had told her colleagues that she had an active WorkCover claim, which she regarded as a serious invasion of her privacy.
The Freehills spokesman said the firm continued to support Ms Stransky ''wherever possible'', including through an income-protection insurance policy and through access to confidential counselling.
Ms Stransky said she was taking the action against Freehills because of the personal suffering and injury and because ''as a lawyer I believe in justice, I want justice to prevail''.
The case follows allegations that a senior lawyer at boutique firm Kelly Hazell Quill Lawyers was sacked for being pregnant and for making complaints about conditions at her work.
Other lawyers say these sorts of complaints about working conditions are regular in bigger firms and that many lawyers end up resigning.