15 Feb 2018

Law firm admits 'naivety' over sexual misconduct allegations by young students

1:52 pm on 15 February 2018

Let’s be clear.



Law statute books

Photo: Diego Opatowski/RNZ

Top law firm Russell McVeagh has admitted it was naive to not explicitly tell staff it has a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct.

Newsroom yesterday reported two male lawyers have been the subject of allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards younger, female law-clerk students.

Two incidents happened at a Christmas function and another at Wellington’s El Horno Bar. Further details have not been made public.

Those lawyers are no longer with the company.

The Newsroom article states changes have since been made to the firm’s summer internship programme after intervention from Victoria University, as have its alcohol policies.

Russell McVeagh senior partner, Pip Greenwood, appeared on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme shortly before midday to address the allegations.

She said she understood no formal complaint had been lodged with the police, although they had been notified.

She would not clarify whether the male lawyers resigned or were sacked, nor how senior their positions were.

“Our real concerns about what happened were that these young women joined us in potentially their first jobs and we were entrusted with them, and I personally feel responsible that their first work experience was not what it should have been,” she said.

“Our focus was the young woman concerned and that has always been our focus. Our primary concern was that we did the right thing by her.”

Greenwood said the firm had learned lessons from the incidents, including better communication.

“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.”

She told Nine to Noon Russell McVeagh has an anti-harassment policy in place and has also introduced a list of contact people should anyone feel concerned. It also works with an external counselling facility.

She outlined the process the firm undertook when it was made aware of the clerks’ complaints. The HR department was first notified, then the board and partners immediately afterwards, and an internal investigation was conducted.

She said no staff members, specifically the clerks, were asked to sign any confidentiality agreements during this process.

The original Newsroom story revealed one of the male lawyers, since leaving Russell McVeagh, has continued to do work for the firm.

Greenwood said this was true and defined the work as a “legacy matter” with a Russell McVeagh client.

“We’ve taken steps to ensure that no female staff members are involved and staff are protected, and that no meetings are held on our premises.”

She said another of the male lawyers had since asked the firm for a reference, and was unclear about whether that was provided.

The Newsroom story stated five of the 10 clerks who were offered full-time positions with Russell McVeagh turned them down. Greenwood said she believed the number was two.