2 Mar 2018

'I'm surprised people are surprised' - former lawyer

From Nine To Noon, 9:09 am on 2 March 2018

A lawyer who left the profession after suffering years of inappropriate sexual behaviour from male colleagues is appalled at what she calls 'inaction' by the Law Society in the wake of the Russell McVeagh scandal.

While 60 percent of law graduates are women, less than 40 percent become partners, according to the Law Society.

While 60 percent of law graduates are women, less than 40 percent become partners, according to the Law Society. Photo: 123rf

Yesterday it was announced the Law Society will establish a working group to look at how to improve reporting of sexual harassment in the legal profession.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck told Nine to Noon there was no place for sexual harassment in the profession and it must stop.

She said it was essential all lawyers worked in an environment free of harassment and the Society wanted to provide practical support for people affected by the issue.

Steps being considered include a national helpline, an online portal and providing more information and practical guidance to lawyers.

But former litigation lawyer, Olivia Wensley, said the announcement was underwhelming.

"I'm thrilled people are listening to us but, still, it's frustrating that there's a real lack of action on the problem," she said.

Ms Wensley said it's scandalous the Law Society claims it has never received a complaint about sexual harassment when lawyers have an obligation to report misconduct. 

"As lawyers they know exactly what constitutes misconduct. No one is doing anything about it."

She said it's also at odds with the fact a friend of hers made a complaint of that nature two years ago. The perpetrator in  that case was a senior partner who was protected by name suppression. 

Ms Wensley said the entire sector has major issues. 

"It was appalling. It was systematic. It's an open secret and everyone is damn well aware of what's going on."

She said young women are hired for their looks and that the majority of law firms are run by alpha males.

"I'm surprised people are surprised," she said.

Ms Wensley said that when she got her first job in law, she was told she had been hired as a "nice piece of ass" for a man who was assigned as her mentor. 

She said there were about 20 other young women who worked at the firm.

"We talked about it, but it was also accepted. We thought it was normal. You don't know what's normal in a professional environment at age 22."

The most egregious incident happened at a Christmas party when she was approached by a man who was senior in the company. 

"He sat next to me on the couch, put his hand on my thigh and told me he wanted me to do a sexual act to him. [The act] was so extreme it wouldn't be in Fifty Shades of Grey."

"People I tell say 'wow'. It was so twisted. It involved my secretary as well. I told her and she cried because she was so shocked."

Ms Wensley said she didn't report the incident to human resources because people told her no one would believe her and the man would get rid of her. 

"HR is there to protect the interests of the firm, meaning the partners. If you raise a problem, you will be moved on."

Ms Wensley said the appointment of an independent body to deal with complaints would be a good solution, and that reporting needs to be mandatory - and have consequences. 

Wellington barrister Wendy Aldred agreed there were issues with reporting.

"The current system isn't working," she said.

Ms Aldred said change will likely be prompted by clients.

"My cynical view is: what will persuade firms is how it affects their bottom line."