Dame Margaret Bazley's report on Russell McVeagh a blueprint for change

2:37 pm on 5 July 2018

Opinion: The entire legal profession in New Zealand must take some serious lessons from the Russell McVeagh report, writes Steph Dyhrberg.

Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty.

Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty at today's release of the report. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Dame Margaret Bazley's report into sexual harassment claims at the Russell McVeagh law firm was released to the public today and makes for sobering reading.

Every aspect of the way the sexual assault allegations of the summer of 2015/16 were handled by Russell McVeagh comes in for criticism, and deservedly so.

These were young, inexperienced and vulnerable women, brought into the firm for a summer of fun and a bit of work experience. The people charged with caring for them failed them miserably, and continued to do so for two and a half years.

Warning signs were there to be seen: this could and should have been prevented. What went so horribly wrong?

The wider cultural and management issues that contributed to this disaster are articulated by Dame Margaret and her team. They found a past culture of 'work hard, play hard', excessive drinking and instances of crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Dame Margaret Bazley led the review into Law firm Russell McVeagh.

Dame Margaret Bazley led the review into Law firm Russell McVeagh. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

While that has mercifully changed since the summer of 2016, the report finds failings in governance, structure, management, policies, standards and systems.

The Wellington office was leaderless and rudderless. Dame Margaret was shocked to learn of pockets of bullying, poor work management practices, excessive work hours for juniors and fear of speaking out. The firm loses too many talented women lawyers. The environment is still sexist and requires a significant commitment to a programme of culture change.

Why has a leading law firm that prides itself on hiring and promoting the best and brightest of our law graduates, has money to pay for the best training, resources and management expertise, and counts New Zealand's biggest corporates amongst its clients retained an archaic, dysfunctional, unsafe and unhealthy working environment?

My view? Russell McVeagh has suffered from an elitist culture where partners are on pedestals and professionals "take care" of the staff issues.

The tremendous benefits accruing to those at the top of the firm generate a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and this disempowers people who try to challenge it.

From what I read in this report, regrettably, little about this corporate mentality has changed in 20 years. The recent improvements: the Rainbow tick, more female partners, flexibility etc. seem like responses to corporate clients' expectations, rather than the sign of a genuine appreciation of what was broken and needed to be fixed.

Dame Margaret has spelled out the ways the firm has not moved with the times, and the fact it must. The firm has evidently accepted all her recommendations. The blueprint which Dame Margaret and her team have handed the partners requires those who stay to strip it back to its foundations and re-build a completely different firm.

The rest of the legal profession must take some serious learnings from this report. Dame Margaret makes that very clear.

The problems are exactly the same as those spelled out in Josh Pemberton's report, and now, finally, we must work together to devise and implement a plan to address them. The Law Society finally has the beginnings of a programme for leading culture change, but has a lot of ground to recover and must regain the profession's trust. Every firm, every legal employer should be holding up a mirror and asking itself, and crucially, its staff, "are we anything like this; are you okay; what do we need to do differently?"

The profession is still in shock after the dreadful Law Society sexual harassment and bullying survey results, but we are still hearing too many people suggesting it isn't so bad, or it's just Russell McVeagh, or big firms.

It's not. We need to face it courageously together, for all our sakes.

* Steph Dyhrberg is a partner at Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law and the Wellington Women Lawyers' Association convenor

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