The interns & the law firm

Law firm commissions inquiry into itself

More than two years after law firm Russell McVeagh learned of allegations of serious sexual assault involving two of its lawyers and five summer clerks, the firm has announced it is appointing an external person to undertake a review of its conduct.   

Since Newsroom revealed the allegations nine days ago, Russell McVeagh has claimed it undertook a detailed internal investigation and the two lawyers accused by the clerks left the firm. It claims it adopted a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment and abuse but will not say when that came into effect.

In a statement released today, Russell McVeagh says: "We believe the actions that we took immediately on becoming aware of these incidents were the right ones."

It says: "What happened in the summer of 2015/16 was completely unacceptable."

One of the men who left Russell McVeagh after the complaints took a position at a smaller firm, Duncan Cotterill. The two firms have provided starkly different accounts to Newsroom of how much information was provided about the lawyer during the reference checking process. The two departees from Russell McVeagh subsequently worked together and one has at times continued on  work for two clients of his old firm, in his area of expertise.

The Law Society president Kathryn Beck has confirmed the Society first became aware of the allegations in September 2016 - at least eight-to-nine months after the alleged assaults were known to the Russell McVeagh human resources department and board. "There was a meeting in confidence in early September between [the Society’s executive director] and one of the [young women] and her representative," she said. "That is the first time that any of this appears to get on the horizon.”

Newsroom understands that as a result Russell McVeagh partners who knew of the alleged misconduct may have breached a clear obligation under Law Society rules to immediately report misconduct.

Today's statement from the Russell McVeagh board is a clear attempt to control the impact the revelations are having on the the firm's public image. It has been using high-profile communications advisers to arrange interviews since the story broke.

The announcement of the external inquiry also follows questions raised at a select committee at Parliament by National MP Melissa Lee to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment on whether it is appropriate for the Government to use Russell McVeagh's services in light of the allegations. 

The firm has repeatedly invoked the women's privacy for its refusal to provide more details of what went on and how Russell McVeagh dealt with it.

Its statement today again co-opts the women: "The brave actions of the young women who spoke out, resulted in the Board and managing partners taking significant action to improve our workplace culture over the past 2 years and adopt a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual harassment."

The review, to be conducted by a person from outside the law profession who has experience in diversity and inclusion will look at:

-all actions taken with respect to the specific incidents; 

-current management practices and policies in relation to preventing sexual harassment and supporting those who wish to make complaints; 

-the organisational culture of the firm. 

Current staff will be expected to participate in the review, while "former staff and summer clerks will also be invited to participate". 

"Our intention is that the review will be led by a senior, independent and well regarded leader with recognised skills in culture, diversity, and inclusion. 

"The final review recommendations will be shared with those parties to whom we have professional obligations which include the women involved, staff, clients, and the Law Society."  

Newsroom's investigation into the events of that summer, the broader culture at the firm and the implications for the law profession and other sectors, continues next week.

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