16 Feb 2018

Young lawyers a 'smorgasbord ... to feast upon'

2:39 pm on 16 February 2018

Entitled men in the legal profession believe young employees and interns are a "smorgasbord for them to feast upon", an employment lawyer says.

Victoria University has confirmed several of its students on internships at law firm Russell McVeagh reported being sexually assaulted by two senior lawyers two years ago.

Police were involved but no charges were laid, and the men no longer work at the company.

Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood told Nine to Noon yesterday staff had not been explicitly told about a zero tolerance policy towards sexual misconduct at the time of the incidents.

"I think naively, we felt like we didn't need to be so explicit about zero-tolerance for this sort of behaviour, because I think we felt prior to this having occurred, this sort of behaviour didn't represent our values and our culture," she said.

"We have moved on and we are very conscious of this and working very hard to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Ms Greenwood said as soon as it became aware of the complaints, it ordered a thorough internal investigation, and it took their what the interns said very seriously.

Stephanie Dyhrberg is the convener of the Wellington Women Lawyers' Association, is an employment lawyer and worked at Russell McVeagh from 1990 to 1997.

She told Morning Report there had always been a power imbalance in large firms where entitled men believed young employees and interns were a "smorgasbord for them to feast upon".

Ms Dyhrberg said she was astonished and disappointed that Ms Greenwood said Russell McVeagh did not think it needed an explicit, zero-tolerance policy towards harassment.

"Back in the day it wasn't uncommon, now it's not uncommon, and there's a positive obligation on every employer under the Human Rights Act to actively prevent discrimination and harassment."

The men in the profession needed to step up at take some responsibility for their behaviour, Ms Dyhrberg said.

"When you are young and you are inexperienced and you're an attractive young woman going into an environment where you are the least powerful person there you are incredibly vulnerable."

She has asked the Law Society to expedite a specific sexual harassment policy for the profession and appoint a sexual harassment officer.

Wellington barrister Wendy Aldred said the revelations are a confirmation there's a culture of harassment in the profession.

Ms Aldred, who is also a member of the Law Society's Women in Law Committee, Nine to Noon that people in the law profession have always known sexually inappropriate behaviour is demonstrated in work places.

"I think the lid has been lifted, publicly at least, but this is hardly an issue that lawyers, at least, haven't been aware of for some time.

"I'm not talking here about the specific situation in relation to Russell McVeagh but the fact that these things go on is probably something we all know about."

Ms Aldred said she was unsure why Russell McVeagh didn't report the assaults to the Law Society.

Survey to investigate bullying and harassment

Wellington barrister Elizabeth Hall is rolling out a survey to investigate bullying and harassment in the profession.

She told Morning Report the attrition rate for young women lawyers was "alarmingly high" and the gender imbalance in the top legal jobs was "stubbornly persistent".

"I think that there is a role to play in examining why those issues are there and whether workplace bullying plays a part in that.

"Certainly, anecdotally and personally I'm aware of bullying ... in the profession."

She said many women did not make complaints because they feared it would impede their career progression.

Criminal law particularly was a high-stress, traditional work environment with a hierarchical structure where there was an attitude that people should just "suck it up" and complaining was a sign of weakness, Ms Hall said.

Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter said the harassment of the interns was shocking.

"It's another example of how sexual harassment in the workplace is a real problem and it's something this government wants to investigate options to take action on."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs