Damning review into culture at Russell McVeagh released

A damning review into the culture at law firm Russell McVeagh has been released.

"No one was in charge in the Wellington office, the team within which incidents occurred was out of control," the review chaired by Dame Margaret Bazley found.

Russell McVeagh had a "work hard, play hard" culture with excessive drinking, and crude, drunken, sexually inappropriate behaviour. Junior lawyers and other young staff were encouraged to drink to excess.

At the firm 30 percent of partners are women, and the review found many talented women left the firm rather than progressing to partnership level.

"I was surprised to hear of pockets of bullying, poor work management practices resulting in excessive work hours for junior lawyers, and fear... about the potential consequences of speaking out," Dame Margaret said.

The external review was launched after incidents of sexual harassment in the summer of 2015/16 were made public by Newsroom in February.

It examined how the firm responded to the incidents, its current practices and policies relating to sexual harassment and complaints, and the organisational culture of the firm.

Three alleged incidents at Russell McVeagh

Crucially, Dame Margaret said she had hoped to be able to describe details of all the 2015-16 incidents, but this has not been possible.  

"In some instances I received requests for privacy and I have sought to strike a balance between privacy and the benefits of accurately describing the allegations," she said.

Incident one:

An intoxicated partner allegedly inappropriately touched four summer clerks on the breasts, bottom, waist and hips and tried to kiss them at a Christmas party. The partner then tried to get into one woman's taxi before another clerk shut the door.

Incident two:

The same male partner hosted solicitors and summer clerks at his home allegedly resulting in an "incident of inappropriate sexual conduct".

Incident three:

The same male partner and some of the team's solicitors and summer clerks went for drinks and dinner. It was later in the evening that there was a reported incident of inappropriate sexual conduct by one of the solicitors.

The identities of the two men involved has never been publicly confirmed, and Dame Margaret said the allegations have always been strongly denied.

More than 250 people were spoken to in the course of the review, but Dame Margaret did not interview the two men concerned.

"I did have a telephone conversation with the solicitor and both provided written feedback," she said.

Dame Margaret has been previously been involved in a Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct in 2007, a review of the Legal Aid System in 2009, and was the Chair of appointed Environment Commissioners at Environment Canterbury from 2011 - 2016. 

Russell McVeagh chair Malcolm Cotty said the board and partners fully accepted Dame Margaret's findings and are committed to implementing all of her recommendations and have started doing so already.

"The board and partners of Russell McVeagh are deeply sorry for the impact that the incidents of 2015/2016 have had on the young women involved and our people. We have apologised to the young women for the hurt and damage we caused... Their actions will result in meaningful change."

Mr Crotty said the leadership "believed we had a speak out culture and it is clear from this review that we were misguided in this belief".

Minister of Justice Andrew Little says the incidents revealed at Russell McVeagh have been "a wakeup call for the entire profession".

"Russell McVeagh is one of the largest, if not the largest, law firms in the country. They're a powerful institution, they've had these serious allegations made about the way they've been run and people have been harmed in their employment there."

Mr Little said he's concerned what role the Law Society "ought to play in the future in relation to employees of law firms who suffer this type of conduct at the hands of practicing lawyers".

He said young people entering the profession are reliant on partners of law firms for mentorship and development opportunities, and when they behave in detrimental ways the young people need options outside of reporting to the firm itself or even the Law Society.

A Law Society survey released in May found one third of female lawyers had been sexually harassed at work. Nearly one third of lawyers said major changes were needed to their workplace culture, which rose to 40 percent for lawyers under the age of 30.


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