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Sexual misconduct allegations against lawyers isn't uncommon. Punishment is tricky

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In 2017, many women came forward accusing powerful men of harassment and sexual assault, and the #MeToo movement helped change some things. But experts say much work still needs to be done to curb harassment in the legal profession. NPR's Jaclyn Diaz has our story, and a warning, this story includes a description of sexual assault.

JACLYN DIAZ, BYLINE: Melissa Rogozinski is not an attorney, but she's worked in the legal field for almost 30 years. But in 2016, her trust in the industry was shaken. It was February, and she was living in Birmingham, Ala. It's here at a restaurant near her home that Rogozinski says she was assaulted by a well-known attorney. His name was Robert Childs. He was a partner at a firm in the city. A police report from that night alleges that Childs and Rogozinski, who just met, were having a conversation when Childs groped her vagina. Then he did it a second time.

MELISSA ROGOZINSKI: Your mind is telling you, that didn't just happen. And your body is just paralyzed.

DIAZ: Rogozinski filed her police report that night, then she filed a complaint to the Alabama State Bar for disciplinary review. Bar associations in Alabama are the regulatory and disciplinary authority for lawyers. Rogozinski isn't accusing Child's firm of any wrongdoing. In November of that year, she learned that her case was dismissed. This meant Childs would suffer no professional discipline for the alleged assault. Rogozinski was shattered.

ROGOZINSKI: I felt my own industry had betrayed me.

DIAZ: She settled with Childs in civil court for an undisclosed amount. But before she could press criminal charges against him, he died in 2018. Representatives for Child's estate and his law firm didn't respond to NPR's requests for comment. Rogozinski's story isn't unique. A 2020 report from Women Lawyers on Guard found sexual misconduct and harassment happens across the legal profession. Half of the 2,000 respondents to the survey that said they were harassed or abused said that there were no consequences for their abuser.

GILLIAN CHADWICK: Most people would be shocked if they knew how much tolerance there is for sexual misconduct in the legal profession.

DIAZ: That's Gillian Chadwick, a professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. She researches lawyer misconduct and legal issues involving gender-based violence. Her studies have found that lawyers who sexually abused clients were punished with only temporary suspensions. They rarely face permanent disbarment. The American Bar Association recommends model rules of conduct for state bar associations, but they're not mandatory and the ABA itself doesn't implement discipline. Wendy Muchmen spent decades as a prosecutor with Illinois' Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. She says the U.S. could improve tracking data on disciplinary cases. But, she said...

WENDY MUCHMAN: Regulators do the best they can with the cases they get. The most difficult thing about these cases is someone has to report it.

DIAZ: That's why Rogozinski is speaking to NPR now.

ROGOZINSKI: These people who are committing these acts of harassment, objectification, and assault - the only way it's going to stop is if we hold them accountable.

DIAZ: Jaclyn Diaz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.