Newsroom Exclusive

Wellington’s worst-kept secret

It’s been the Wellington legal fraternity’s worst-kept secret.

What we know so far is that five female clerks have made a series of claims, ranging from serious sexual assault to sexual harassment, while they were employed at top-tier law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington.

It is understood two incidents arose from firm Christmas functions, one a serious allegation of sexual assault arising from an event at a senior lawyer’s house, the second during the time of the firm-wide Christmas party, which led to intervention from a witness. A third incident was at a Wellington venue, El Horno Bar.

The clerks took their concerns to human resources but no resolution was concluded at the meeting. At least one report of sexual assault was made to police.

Two older male lawyers left the firm following an internal investigation but remained in the law. One of the alleged perpetrators soon took up a position with another law firm. Newsroom is aware that the two men subsequently worked together and one has at times continued on Russell McVeagh work in his area of expertise.

Victoria University Law Students' Society cut sponsorship ties with Russell McVeagh for their Women in Law event. Newsroom understands the Society was assured one of the alleged perpetrators would not come onto campus in future. Ngā Rangahautira (the Māori Law Students' Association) subsequently rejected a sponsorship offer for Māori Language Week from Russell McVeagh, citing a clash in values with the firm.

The New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee was notified, where the universities approached the New Zealand Law Society and Russell McVeagh. The clerk programme was overhauled, including a ban on alcohol and the launch of a helpline.

Russell McVeagh - who won law firm of the year at the 2017 NZ Law Awards - said they wouldn’t comment further as they had been asked by the women affected to respect their privacy in a statement this morning.  

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford told RNZ the committee was “all very disappointed to understand what had gone on”.

“We have learnt a lot about the culture around clerking programmes and law firms that we don’t like and I don’t think the profession likes as well."

Guilford said this country had a widespread problem with sexual violence against young women in the workplace.

"When our young people go into these workplaces this is a very big step in their move towards adulthood ... All of a sudden they’re assaulted and then their world comes crashing down. Then they start to think they were appointed, not because of their abilities, of who they were but because some asshole in a workplace wants to act as a predator and sexually assault them. That leads to all sorts of emotions, loss of self confidence [but] also guilt. Which is of course completely an inappropriate emotion.”

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

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