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Former staff question law firm’s culture

Leading law firm Russell McVeagh faces further criticism for its handling of complaints from five student clerks of serious sexual assault and harassment while on a summer work programme.

Questions are also being raised about the culture at the firm with one, male former lawyer saying photos in bio-booklets of prospective law clerks from universities have been referred to by senior male lawyers in the past as the summer "menu".

Another ex-Russell McVeagh support staff person told Newsroom that events organised for summer clerks catered for three bottles of wine each to ensure they enjoyed the evening. Incidents occurred time and time again. "It was like watching a trainwreck waiting to happen in slow motion."

There has been no indication that either of two lawyers accused of sexual wrongdoing during the summer clerk programme was disciplined by the firm after complaints to its human resources department of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour at two Christmas functions and a Wellington bar. One serious incident allegedly occurred at the home of a senior Russell McVeagh staff member.

The Law Society declined to investigate when approached.

Wellington police opened a file on a serious sexual assault complaint but did not pursue charges. The file remains open. Detective Senior Sergeant Warwick McKee said: "We take complaints of this nature very seriously and there are no time limits on reporting such allegations.

"We encourage anyone with information they wish to discuss with police, or matters they wish to report, to contact us."

Newsroom has not named the clerks or other women involved to protect their privacy.

"The summer clerks, before they arrive, they issue a booklet with photos and a bio, that was referred to as 'the menu' ... by more senior male solicitors who would trawl through it and mark it up and send it around."

When asked today about the case, Women's Affairs Minister Julie-Anne Genter said: "That's shocking ... It is another example of how sexual harassment in the workplace is a real problem and it's something this government really wants to investigate options to take on."

While Russell McVeagh says it was "shocked and horrified at the events that happened" and always took staff concerns "extremely seriously" a former member of staff who is well briefed on the episode demurred.

He told Newsroom he was critical of how the firm dealt with the two men at the centre of the allegations, saying the firm's internal inquiry was like "window-dressing".

Newsroom understands that at least one of the men was allowed to resign, after one lawyer left the firm it continued to direct 'legacy' fee-paying work to him in his new role. It's also understood the firm provided a reference for a second man to find other employment.

The former lawyer from the firm told Newsroom: "My impression of how they handled it this time is that they fully realised this posed a substantial risk to them commercially and in terms of their perception in the market.

"My understanding of what they did is that they followed the path of least resistance with the men involved."

He claimed a woman who supported clerks after they raised concerns was "ostracised and chastised for her involvement", including receiving a call from a woman lawyer berating her.

The ex-staff lawyer named one partner as "leader of the clean-up crew".

He said sexual harassment issues went beyond the summer in question. "The summer clerks, before they arrive, they issue a booklet with photos and a bio, that was referred to as 'the menu' ... by more senior male solicitors who would trawl through it and mark it up and send it around."

Asked by Newsroom if he had specifically seen that occur, the source said: "Yep."

"For three months I saw these young lives being trashed. There were no comms about it. It was handled very badly."

He said the scrutiny of the summer clerks' complaints and Russell McVeagh's response "could be an important watershed moment" for the legal profession.

"I'd say that this isn't unique to Russell McVeagh alone."

The female former staff member told Newsroom she observed the aftermath of the El Horno incident. "For three months I saw these young lives being trashed. There were no comms about it. It was handled very badly."

This morning, Russell McVeagh supplied Newsroom with answers to questions raised yesterday before publication of the original story detailing the complaints.

It said it had "zero tolerance" for bad behaviour. "We are committed to addressing any issues of harassment at Russell McVeagh and in our profession generally by making it known that any such behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

A senior partner, Pip Greenwood, told Newsroom she could not say if the men were fired or allowed to resign. She said no clerk or other staff member had been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement "in relation to this matter". She denied Russell McVeagh "assisted the individuals concerned ... getting jobs".

However she confirmed one of the men continued to work on residual case work for two of the firm's clients - "not working for Russell McVeagh" - because the firm was not allowed under Law Society rules to stop working on a file. 

"The person concerned is not welcome on our premises."

- Russell McVeagh

"We have taken steps to ensure our staff are protected on those matters. There are no female solicitors on those matters and our contact with the person concerned has been as limited as possible.

"The person concerned is not welcome on our premises. There are no meetings to be held on our premises. And it is just because these matters were already on foot before these events happened. We can't just drop those matters,"  Greenwood said.

Beyond that, Russell McVeagh would not "be instructing him, we will not be working with this person."

The firm had worked hard internally and within the legal profession to improve summer clerk programme inductions and safety measures. The problems now made public meant that "as a consequence of that, we have a zero-tolerance policy".

"The important thing for us is that post this event we have been very clear and we have taken steps to ensure the safety of our staff is paramount."

Greenwood said she had not heard the term "menu" used in connection with the pictures and bios of summer clerks. "We clearly send 'round to all staff the list of new people that are joining - both men and women - and that practice happens. But there will be no male partner that will call that the menu."

On the effect of the alleged behaviour on the summer clerks, she told RNZ's Nine to Noon programme: "I personally feel very, personally responsible for the fact that their first work experience was not what it should have been."

She would not say if the two staff members were fired or resigned or if one was a partner. "I don't think it is helpful to focus on the two people concerned. If we start to go down that track we potentially start to undermine the privacy of the young women concerned."

Russell McVeagh had told police it would fully cooperate with any inquiry into the matters that occurred.

The firm's chairman, Malcolm Crotty, today emailed its legal contact list, which appears to include former staff and current summer clerks and new graduates, attaching its press statement to "explain the firm's position".

The summer interns and the law firm 

Listen: Key players on McVeagh allegations

If you have any information, email sasha.borissenko@newsroom.co.nz or melanie.reid@newsroom.co.nz 

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