Russell McVeagh slammed over sex assaults

Victoria University law students protest sexual harassment at Russell McVeagh after the story broke earlier in the year. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A damning review into Russell McVeagh’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment and assault has described a “work hard, play hard culture” at the law firm that involved sexually inappropriate behaviour.

The report highlights pockets of bullying and overwork still occurring, but says there were no recent cases of sexual harassment or assault raised by staff.

Russell McVeagh says it has apologised to the women who reported their allegations for how they were treated, saying it has fully accepted the report and its recommendations.

Newsroom has followed - and reported on - the allegations closely since we first broke the story in February.

In March, Russell McVeagh appointed Bazley to conduct an independent review into sexual harassment claims and how they were handled, as well as the firm’s standards, policies and internal culture.

The senior public servant’s 89-page report, released by the firm on Thursday morning, makes nearly 50 recommendations which she says should be implemented as part of a 10-year plan to change its culture.

In her report, Bazley said the firm previously had “a work hard, play hard’ culture that involved excessive drinking and in some cases crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

In the past, a key part of the summer clerk recruitment process was “elaborate, expensive functions at which alcohol was readily available”.

While some clerks enjoyed their experience at Russell McVeagh, others felt they had little work to do and were there as a distraction or to entertain the lawyers.

Speaking about the sexual harassment claims from 2015 and 2016, Bazley said the first occurred at Russell McVeagh’s Christmas party in December 2015, where four female summer clerks said a drunk male partner had touched their bottoms, waists or breasts.

The women had felt “intimidated, confused and uncomfortable”, but were unsure about whether to report the partner.

At a smaller team Christmas party later that month, there was a case of “inappropriate sexual conduct” by the same partner at his house.

In January 2016, the same male partner went out for drinks with some of the team’s solicitors and summer clerks. Later in the evening, there was a “reported incident of inappropriate sexual conduct” by one of the male solicitors.

Bazley said the complaints were handled poorly, with no formal investigation occurring into the first two complaints, and the solicitor involved in the third complaint neither suspended nor stood down while an internal investigation took place.

The four summer clerks involved in the first incident were not offered any counselling following their complaints, and as a result were heavily reliant on each other and a junior female lawyer who had helped them for emotional support.

A number of people had raised concerns to Bazley about staff emails announcing the departures of the men involved in the incidents.

The male solicitor sent an email himself describing his departure in positive terms, while Russell McVeagh itself sent out an email farewelling the partner which some described as “glowing”.

Bazley said the incidents were handled poorly, with no one person in charge and responsible for leading the firm’s response.

Its workplace harassment policy was not followed, and was also inadequate, while an independent, external investigation should have been triggered following the serious allegations.

'Lack of judgment' over work with partner

Addressing concerns that Russell McVeagh had provided an employment reference for the solicitor, Bazley said there was no evidence to suggest it actively arranged the new job.

While the partner who provided the verbal reference disclosed the alleged incident in broad terms, there were questions about whether it had been sufficiently candid.

Bazley did not provide a recommendation on whether Russell McVeagh should have reported the incidents to the Law Society, highlighting processes which were already underway and a pre-existing complaint to the society about the firm.

She said it was “a lack of judgment” for Russell McVeagh to continue working with the former partner once he left the firm, as it did not consider the broader implications for other staff of continued contact with him.

Subsequent statements from Russell McVeagh that the former partner had not worked with female staff after leaving were incorrect, and “a symptom of the lack of a clear, coordinated and widely understood position within the firm on this subject”.

Bazley said none of the Russell McVeagh staff she had spoken to described recent cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

However, she was told of a number of incidents of “grossly obscene behaviour relating to a particular partner, always in the context of heavy drinking”. The partner had since left the firm.

Some staff had also witnessed or experienced bullying by male and female partners and senior lawyers, while some staff also had to work long hours unnecessarily and for an extended period of time.

Bazley said she was given full access to files relating to the incidents, along with other documents related to the firm’s handling of the incidents.

She did not interview the two men who were the subject of the allegations, although both had provided written feedback.

Bazley said Russell McVeagh had taken a number of steps to improve its culture following the sexual harassment allegations.

However, she recommended it review the capability of its HR team, maintain tight controls on alcohol, appoint an independent expert to review its existing policies, and implement mandatory unconscious bias training for all staff.

In a response to Bazley’s report, Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty said the firm’s board and partners “fully accepted” her findings and had committed to implementing all of her recommendations.

Crotty said Russell McVeagh had also apologised to the women involved for the hurt and damage they had suffered following the incidents they reported to the firm.

“We recognise that they have shown great courage and applaud them for that. Their actions will result in meaningful change.”

The firm’s mistakes in handling the incidents pointed to failures in its governance, leadership and management practices, as well as its culture, he said.

“This does not reflect who we thought we were or who we want to be.”

Crotty said the Russell McVeagh board would provide a public update on its efforts to change its practices in the first quarter of 2019.

External reaction

Justice Minister Andrew Little and his undersecretary for domestic and sexual violence issues, Jan Logie, said the culture and conduct described by Bazley in her report was "totally unacceptable".

"Even though this is not a Government report I will be looking closely at all the recommendations. This report highlights the need for improvements in the legal profession,” Little said.

Little said he had spoken to a number of whistleblowers about changes that needed to occur to ensure a safer environment for women who worked in the legal profession.

Logie said the problems outlined by Bazley were not limited to Russell McVeagh or the legal profession.

"This underscores the magnitude of sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces, and I am hearing that many employers either don’t know how to respond or put their own business interests ahead of the welfare of people," she said.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said the report was another indictment of the culture that had been allowed to grow within the legal profession.

“I want to be clear that while this report is about appalling events and a dysfunctional culture, we should not for a minute believe this is isolated to one firm," Beck said.

The structures, cultures and work practices identified by Bazley were common across the legal profession and had historically served to keep issues out of the public eye.

Beck said the Law Society was committed to becoming more accessible than in the past, and driving a wider cultural change across the legal profession.

It was currently recruiting lawyers to a taskforce which would focus on tackling sexual harassment and bullying, and had received expressions of interest in the voluntary positions from a large number of lawyers.