The interns & the law firm

All six law schools cut ties with Russell McVeagh

All six of the country's university law faculties have now rejected ties with the troubled law firm Russell McVeagh while it conducts an independent review into incidents of sexual misconduct and its culture.

The University of Auckland joined the fray in a powerfully-worded statement saying it had put its relationship with Russell McVeagh on hold for the rest of the year, and that there should have been a strong apology from the firm. 

Otago, Canterbury, Waikato, AUT and Victoria universities had already announced they were rejecting any recruitment branding, and Russell McVeagh-related events on their campuses.

Auckland's Dean of Law, Professor Andrew Stockley, told staff and students today that students "invited to an event or employed in any capacity should expect appropriate and professional behaviour at all times, and that the school would not accept any student being subjected to inappropriate behaviour, pressure, or sexual harassment".

In the statement, Stockley said faculty members and law student societies had expressed concern about Russell McVeagh’s response to the recent media coverage, "which did not reflect the change in culture that, following meetings with law school Deans in previous years, had been assured would occur".

“There is widespread feeling that there should have been a much stronger apology and public recognition of the harm that some women law students have experienced, and that the answers reported in the media have been unduly legalistic and narrow,” he said. “As an example, there have been comments made to the effect that there were no formal complaints, that privacy prevents the firm saying more, and that in some cases the women consented.

“Consequently, I wrote this morning to the Managing Partner of Russell McVeagh to advise him that the relationship between the law firm and this law school is on hold for the remainder of the year. This means that Russell McVeagh will not be sponsoring nor attending events on campus as part of their recruitment drive.

“The University will ensure there is no detrimental impact to students or staff because of the removal of funding, and we will still welcome individual lawyers from the firm as guest lecturers on specialist subjects – in their own right and not as Russell McVeagh representatives.”

The major law firms visit universities at this time of year to recruit top students for future placements.

The majority of the law schools have gone one step further to say they are willing to reimburse the New Zealand Law Students’ Association if it decides to cut all sponsorship ties with the firm.

The New Zealand Law Students' Association also told Newsroom today it had ended its sponsorship relationship with Russell McVeagh for the 2018 National Client Interviewing Competition.

"The NZLSA Council voted on the matter and concluded it was not satisfied with how Russell McVeagh handled serious allegations of sexual misconduct," the Association wrote in an email to Newsroom.

"As the NZLSA has previously noted, we condemn any behaviour or conduct that makes a student feel unsafe or uncomfortable in a working environment. We note the obligation of all employers to create a workplace where employees are protected from any unwanted behaviour."

Victoria University of Wellington's Law Students' Society (VUWLSS) also said it was ending its relationship with the firm over the way it handled the misconduct and assault complaints.

"The assaults should have been reported as an official complaint to the Law Society immediately after they occurred," VUWLSS President Fletcher Boswell wrote on Facebook.

"Russell McVeagh have confirmed that this was not done at the time, and that this still has not been done. From our understanding, this is a breach of what the firm is legally and ethically obliged to do."

The news follows an announcement by Russell McVeagh last week, that it will conduct an ‘external’ review of its actions regarding inappropriate behaviour - ranging from sexual harassment to serious sexual misconduct - by two male employees towards five summer clerks in Wellington over the summer of 2015/2016.

Newsroom revealed yesterday that AUT's School of Law withdrew an invitation for the firm to hold a recruitment session with its students next Tuesday because of "improper conduct" and concerns over the firm's culture.

Law Faculty Dean Professor Charles Rickett said the law school withdrew because of concerns over the behaviour of some Russell McVeagh staff.

“On balance, we believe it is suitable to be cautious about the safety and wellbeing of our students and to wait until the outcome of the external review before deciding how to proceed.”

Otago University's Dean of Law Mark Henaghan and Canterbury University's Ursula Cheer confirmed all the law schools have cut ties with Russell McVeagh. 

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford confirmed the university had been in discussions with NZLSA about covering any incurred costs.

“Victoria awaits the outcome of the external review of Russell McVeagh and the firm’s response to the review before deciding whether to resume activities with the firm.

“We believe it is in the best interests of our students and staff to await the external review of Russell McVeagh’s workplace culture and - perhaps more importantly - the firm’s response to the review.

“Our caution in part relates to the on-going allegations of prior alcohol-fuelled sexual impropriety between senior staff and students on the firm’s premises but also the firm’s recent description of such events as ‘consensual’. This description suggests the culture that fostered these behaviours may very well remain well ingrained in the firm.

“Our caution in part relates to the on-going allegations of prior alcohol-fuelled sexual impropriety between senior staff and students on the firm’s premises but also the firm’s recent description of such events as ‘consensual’. This description suggests the culture that fostered these behaviours may very well remain well ingrained in the firm.”

Waikato University's Dean of Law, Associate Professor Wayne Rumbles, told Newsroom the university will not be hosting Russell McVeagh on campus, “nor will it be engaging with the firm for student recruitment, at this stage”.

“The University will also be paying for its team to take part in the Client Interviewing competitions this year, rather than accepting sponsorship from Russell McVeagh. While investigations are carried out, our priority remains the well-being of our students and graduates."

Henaghan said it made sense to underwrite the competition because while removing branding was one thing, student associations had little money so it made sense for the universities to step in.

“We think it’s important to step aside and make a stance while the firm undertakes their inquiry.” 

Cheer said: “We feel uncomfortable allowing the firm to come onto campus to recruit our students until their independent review is carried out. We want to make sure our students are safe in future so it’s best to put things on hold, for now.”

“We hope things change and improve, we are simply waiting to see the outcome of the review. We are concerned that it has to be entirely independent of the legal profession. And we’re assuming it won’t be a friend of Russell McVeagh’s as people are going to be looking at them very closely.

“We hope things change and improve, we are simply waiting to see the outcome of the review. We are concerned that it has to be entirely independent of the legal profession. And we’re assuming it won’t be a friend of Russell McVeagh’s as people are going to be looking at them very closely.”

Waikato University Law Students’ Association said the responsibility for providing a safe workplace lay with all employers. “We will continue to work with firms and universities to promote safe workplaces. We condemn any behaviour or conduct that makes a student feel unsafe or uncomfortable in a working environment.”

The Society of Otago University Law Students said everyone had the right to feel safe and comfortable in a working environment.

“SOULS acknowledges the inappropriate sexual behaviour that occurred and of course we share the university’s and wider public’s concern.

“SOULS support and encourage our students to speak out, and be taken seriously, in whichever way they feel comfortable. We encourage past or present law students to contact SOULS, the university or the appropriate authorities if they have concerns about anything surrounding this issue.”

Other legal groups, including the Otago University Māori Law Students, the In-house Lawyers’ Association, a group dedicated to all of New Zealand's staff lawyers at businesses, and the Women's Law Journal - New Zealand's only academic publication that is solely dedicated to publishing and supporting the work of women lawyers - are understood to be reviewing sponsorship arrangements with Russell McVeagh.

Newsroom also understands the Government Legal Network - a group that houses departmental chief legal advisors, principal law officers and all government lawyers - did not hold an event as planned on the Russell McVeagh Wellington premises on Wednesday 21 February, just a week after Newsroom broke the story of the summer interns harassment and assaults.

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