New Zealand legal profession shocked by sexual harassment scandal

One of New Zealand’s most prestigious law firms has become embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct towards interns – allegations which have cost two lawyers their jobs, and caused the entire profession to question how it treats its most vulnerable staff.

An investigation by website Newsroom has alleged “a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour” by a number of senior male lawyers at the firm Russell McVeagh towards female university students who spent a summer clerking for the firm in Wellington in 2016.

Russell McVeagh acts for 11 of the top 15 companies in the country, including all of New Zealand’s retail banks and its largest company and largest listed company.

The allegations have sent shockwaves through the law community in New Zealand, with leading lawyers calling for a specialised sexual harassment officer being appointed by the New Zealand Law Association to manage complaints.

“It is unfortunately well known that law firms can be unpleasant and unsafe work environments,” posted the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association on its Facebook page, in response to the allegations.

“And that claims of sexual harassment are not always addressed in an appropriate way.”

The allegations by several female student law clerks concern two incidents at an office Christmas party, and one at a Wellington bar.

Five women were among the 10 clerks on the 2016 programme, and all five women eventually declined full-time job offers with the firm, despite a career with the firm being the one of the most sought-after in the country.

One incident resulted in a police investigation being opened, an intervention by New Zealand’s top universities and the launch of a specialist helpline.

Clerks involved in the summer programme initially complained to Russell McVeagh’s human resources department alleging inappropriate sexual behaviour by a number of senior male lawyers, Newsroom reports.

A university representative also took the matter to the chief executive of the Law Society, but was told nothing could be done unless a formal complaint was laid.

Victoria University Law Students’ Society cut sponsorship ties with Russell McVeagh for their Women in Law event after the incidents, and the Māori Law Students Association also distanced themselves from the firm.

Detective Senior Sergeant Warwick McKee of New Zealand police said an allegation of sexual assault was reported to Wellington police in January 2016.

“This was assessed and investigated, however no charges resulted at that time,” said McKee.

“We take complaints of this nature very seriously and there are no time limits on reporting such allegations.”

Grant Guildford, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University, told Radio New Zealand the university became aware of the allegations when one of Russell McVeagh’s senior lawyers attended a function on campus.

“One of the alleged perpetrators appeared on our campus for a public function and came in close contact with one of the young women that had been sexually assaulted in the firm,” Guildford said.

“And the adverse reaction that created in that young woman was observed by her friends and the law student association, and that was transferred to our people in the law faculty who started an investigation.”

Gary McDiarmid, chief executive of Russell McVeagh, said the senior lawyers involved in the incidents have since left the firm.

“Over two years ago we received serious allegations related to incidents in Wellington,” McDiarmid said.

“Where allegations were made, we immediately conducted a full internal investigation at the time and initiated a formal process. Those who were the subject of the allegations left the firm following the investigation.”

In an unrelated incident, a former lawyer at Russell McVeagh told Newsroom that photos of prospective law clerks had been referred to by senior male lawyers as the summer “menu”, while another said events organised for law clerks included three bottles of wine each, to ensure they had a good time.

“It was like watching a train wreck waiting to happen in slow motion,” the former McVeagh staffer told Newsroom.

In a statement the New Zealand Law Society said it was unable to confirm whether a complaint had been laid “related to the allegations of sexual misconduct towards students in a summer law clerk programme at Russell McVeagh”.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said the governing legislation did not allow disclosure of any information about complaints or investigations.

“If a complaint is not received, speaking generally, if sufficient evidence or information is received about the conduct of a lawyer which indicates they may have engaged in misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct, that is a matter which can be referred to a standards committee to decide whether to commence an investigation of its own motion.”

Source: The Guardian

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