Newsroom Exclusive

Law firm not told of complaints against solicitor

A premier national law firm that hired a former Russell McVeagh solicitor after he was accused of sexual misconduct says it was led to believe by a reference check that the incident was minor.

The firm, smaller than Russell McVeagh but a leading name in the profession, says it would not have hired the man in its Wellington office if it had known what went on at the El Horno bar on a January night in 2016.

The lawyer was accused of sexually assaulting a “summer clerk” who worked at Russell McVeagh. The incident was reported to the Police at the time but no action was taken.

The man is one of two Russell McVeagh employees who it is claimed sexually harassed and assaulted young women who were working at the firm's Wellington office over the summer of 2015/16.

The man allegedly involved in the incident at El Horno did not return to Russell McVeagh in mid-January and then started with the new firm in mid-February.

Speaking through a PR company, the second firm told Newsroom the man applied for a role it had advertised.

“Prior to employing this solicitor, we undertook our usual reference checks. We were made aware in a verbal reference check with Russell McVeagh that the solicitor had been involved in an incident however we believed that the matter had been resolved."

That verbal reference was given by a Russell McVeagh partner.

Newsroom understands the law firm hiring the ex McVeagh solicitor did not know the extent and degree of the complaint against him.

Last night that firm's statement said: "A decision was made to hire the solicitor. In hindsight, we should not have made that decision.”

It heard there had been "an issue", but there had been no disciplinary action and the matter had been resolved.

Last night that firm's statement said: "A decision was made to hire the solicitor. In hindsight, we should not have made that decision.”

A Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood had told RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme last week the firm had provided a reference for one of the two men who left after the accusations. But she claimed: “We’ve been very open with that, very open and transparent.”

Asked if that reference made "explicit the circumstances in which that person may have left the firm?", Greenwood said "I think the word transparent is the right way to describe that process." Asked again if the reference made clear "the circumstances in which the person left the firm, or, the fact that they had been subject to this complaint", she offered:" I don’t think it’s helpful for us to go down that path, I think I’ve been very clear around you know we have been transparent and open to the extent that we can be".

A former Russell McVeagh lawyer interviewed by Newsroom said of the reference: "When one stands back and looks at this it seems implausible that the “transparency” claimed was ever provided as what firm in its right mind would hire a person on the strength of a reference that admits the candidate is under investigation for serious sexual assault and is leaving their current employer for that reason?".

At the new job, the accused solicitor secured a promotion in less than a year.

Things were going well for him until last year when junior staff who knew about the alleged incident raised the matter with his superiors and relayed the circumstances of the man’s departure from Russell McVeagh.

The PR company acting for the new employer told Newsroom it only learned about the man’s past more than a year after he began working there.

"We became aware of new information. We were concerned about this and made further inquiries with the solicitor and Russell McVeagh. While we were working through this process the solicitor resigned.”

He is no longer working in Wellington.

Russell McVeagh claims it adopted a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment and abuse but will not say when that came into effect.

The other man accused of sexual misconduct has continued to earn fees working for two clients of Russell McVeagh, which says it was ethically obliged to keep him on the case, even though the law firm has had to ban female staff from working on that account and bar the former senior staffer from attending meetings at its office.

Russell McVeagh claims it adopted a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment and abuse but will not say when that came into effect.

A former staff lawyer at the firm, who is familiar with the case involving the summer clerks, wrote for Newsroom that the policy rang hollow because of the way the firm had manoeuvred the two lawyers involved and the way it treated the five summer clerks and women staff who had rallied behind them.

Victoria University challenged the firm about what had happened to the students, some from its law school, and the national university Vice-Chancellors' Committee and Law Deans Committee were involved in measures to keep clerks in future intakes safe from harm.

Two Victoria University student bodies declined sponsorship or links with Russell McVeagh as a result.

Wellington police have urged anyone with knowledge of the case to contact them as the file remains open. 

The summer interns and the law firm 

Former staff question law firm’s culture

‘Zero tolerance’ flies in face of reality

Lawyers intervened to protect clerk

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