‘Soul searching’ at Russell McVeagh

Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood and board chairman Malcolm Crotty were stone-faced as their firm's shortcomings were outlined. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

A senior female partner at Russell McVeagh says the law firm has undergone plenty of soul searching in the wake of its mishandling of sexual harassment complaints, but warned there is no “five-minute fix”.

Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood, along with board chairman Malcolm Crotty, fronted media on Thursday morning following the release of Dame Margaret Bazley’s damning report into the firm’s actions after young female staff complained of sexual assault or harassment from senior staff.

Crotty and Greenwood at points looked towards the floor, stone-faced, as Bazley outlined Russell McVeagh’s failures in responding to the women’s complaints, as well as broader issues with the firm’s culture both past and present.

Addressing the media, Crotty said the firm fully accepted Bazley’s findings and recommendations and was “profoundly sorry” for the serious impact of its actions and inactions on the women involved and other staff.

“We could have done better, and we should have done much better.”

Addressing Bazley’s finding that there were still some pockets of bullying within Russell McVeagh, Crotty said senior leadership had made it clear there was a “zero-tolerance” approach.

“There is no place in this firm for bullies: that message is clear, and our people must have confidence that our workplace is free of bullying and if they complain, that the bullying will stop.”

The review had highlighted problems with the firm’s hierarchical and siloed structure, he said, which it was determined to change into a more open and collaborative culture.

Asked about who at Russell McVeagh was being held accountable for its failures, Crotty said the firm was having “some difficult and sensitive discussions around that”.

He would not confirm whether there had been any resignations as a result of Bazley’s report, citing employment law and privacy concerns, but said partners took collective responsibility for Russell McVeagh’s shortcomings.

Crotty also declined to comment on whether the firm had suffered financially following the allegations, but said it had had and would continue to have “tough conversations” with its clients who expected change.

“Our clients will be looking to the future and they will be looking to see that we do what we say we’ll do.”

He thanked Bazley for her report, saying: “She has left no stone unturned and shone a spotlight in every corner of our firm.”

Greenwood said there had been “a lot of soul searching” within the firm after it commissioned Bazley’s review, with partners receiving a briefing about its contents on Saturday and holding an all-day meeting to discuss their response.

“One of the things we appreciate as an organisation is the type of cultural change we’re talking about is not a five-minute fix, and that some of the things we’ll be able to do quickly and we’ve started on that ... but some will take longer.”

She was heartened by the fact that staff had already started speaking out about their experiences of bullying as a result of Bazley’s findings.

The company had hired an experienced HR professional to work full-time in its Wellington office - an area of concern raised by Bazley - and would leave partners in no doubt about what was expected of them.

“We are very clear about what it is going to take to be a partner in this organisation and we will be holding people to account for that, and if there are people in this organisation who don’t meet those standards, then there will be consequences.”