'I was paralysed with fear' - ex-lawyer details toxic culture at NZ law firms

"Sexual harassment is the norm. And everyone in our profession knows it."
"Sexual harassment is the norm. And everyone in our profession knows it." Photo credit: Linked In/ Olivia Wensley

Former lawyer Olivia Wensley is calling for a major shakeup to the way the legal profession responds to sexual harassment. 

She says offenders are propped up by colleagues who enable their predatory behaviour, and victims feel powerless and afraid to speak out.

"Sexual harassment is the norm. And everyone in our profession knows it," she wrote in an article on LinkedIn.

Ms Wensley detailed some of her own experiences of sexual harassment, and made suggestions about how to improve the complaint process.

"'I've just hired a nice little piece of ass for you' is how the Partner announced I had been hired - he declared this loudly to a male Associate," Ms Wensley wrote.

"To no surprise, this Associate was assigned as my 'mentor'- the implication was clear. It made me feel sick."

She said when she tried to speak out she was told it wasn't worth it, because no-one would believe her, nothing would happen, and it would ruin her career.

"Sadly, this is the choice faced by young women - either put up and shut up, or lose your career. Those who are brave and make a complaint are often hushed with settlements - so the offenders can continue to offend," she wrote.

Ms Wesley said young solicitors know they are replaceable and if they complained the law firm would not side with them.

"This is because HR, the Office Manager, the CEO and other management staff - are controlled by the Partners.

"The Partners have the money, and the control. They can behave as they please."

She said she could write a novel about the offensive things that had been said and done to her, or that she has seen, but her worst experience involved a 65-year-old man when she was 25.

"I was sitting on a couch in a darkly lit room at the annual Legal Christmas party. He came and sat next to me, and put his hand on my thigh.

"He whispered something I can't even say out loud without my throat seizing up... It makes my eyes water thinking about it. He told me about a sexual fetish act he wanted to do to me, which involved him and my secretary."

She said the man was in a very senior position at a large global institution.

"I was paralysed with fear... He could have ruined me with a single email."

Ms Wensley said she was disheartened by the New Zealand Law Society's "completely unrealistic" response to the Russell McVeagh scandal, saying it was telling victims to speak up and report offenders.

"Why not focus on seeking out the offenders? Putting the blame on the victim isn't the answer. There are many parties that know what is happening within a firm - but most of the time, the offender is protected due to status and power."

She has made a number of suggestions about actions that the Law Society could take, "instead of merely paying lip service to the problem".

Her suggestions include establishing an independent committee to formally investigate the issue and come up with recommendations to fix it, a survey of the profession to find out the scope of the problem, an anonymous tip-off service, random audits of firms, and compulsory notifications about settlements involving sexual harassment allegations.

Within law firms, she suggested an app where victims could contact HR anonymously, a culture shift within firms that comes from the top down and consequences for not reporting.

The New Zealand Law Society has been contacted for comment.

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