The interns & the law firm

Four things the Russell McVeagh review must address

An independent review of how Russell McVeagh handled allegations of sexual harassment and assault at its firm is set to be released Thursday. 

Newsroom has followed - and reported on - the allegations closely since we first broke the story in February. 

Amid concerns the review will gloss over the seriousness of the allegations and fail to prompt real change, Newsroom sets out the four main points Dame Margaret Bazley's review must address.

Dame Margaret Bazley’s review of Russell McVeagh will be released tomorrow. 

Questions have been raised about when Russell McVeagh knew and responded to allegations ranging from sexual assault to rape by five summer interns. The claims relate to at least two incidents and involved two lawyers employed by the firm at the time. Bazley has been tasked with reviewing and giving recommendations relating to the allegations, plus Russell McVeagh’s policies around sexual harassment and the wider culture of the firm.  

The main things Bazley’s report must address: 

1. How Russell McVeagh handled the complaints

Russell McVeagh has ensured the review is independent, but there is no indication whether Bazley has been given full and complete access to all of the firm’s records. Former staff and summer clerks were 'invited to take part' in the inquiry. 

Human resources was first informed of the claims in December 2015, yet the two men in question left the firm in February 2016, along with the summer interns.

A senior partner, Pip Greenwood, told Newsroom in an earlier interview:

“As soon as we found out, in relation to, the matters concerned, we conducted a thorough investigation and then we took action very quickly.”

She did not confirm if the men were fired or resigned.

The firm claimed it adopted a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment and abuse but did not say when that came into effect.

Newsroom understands at least one of the interns was not provided with adequate support, counselling services or independent legal advice. According to one of the interns’ support people, the intern was told to be “careful not to defame” one of the men, and to look at the whole summer programme “holistically”.

Meanwhile, according to a statement made by the firm in February this year: "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 two years.”

2. Reference for one of the men involved 

One of the lawyers went on to work at Duncan Cotterill, the other went on to share an office with other lawyers. In an earlier interview, Russell McVeagh said they had informed Duncan Cotterill that one of the men had been investigated for sexual assault in a job reference. Duncan Cotterill said it had no idea of the allegations at the time the man was hired.

Duncan Cotterill said it was led to believe by a reference check that the incident was minor. They heard there had been “an issue”, but there had been no disciplinary action and the matter had been resolved.

3. Continuing to use one of the men for legal work 

One of the men was receiving Russell McVeagh work once he left the firm. Russell McVeagh told Newsroom it was ethically obliged to keep him on a case, even though the law firm had to ban female staff from working on that account and bar the former senior staffer from attending meetings at its office.

Newsroom understands the man still holds a practising certificate.

4. Why Russell McVeagh did not inform the Law Society 

The Law Society was first informed of the claims in October 2016 when one of the women told the society, almost 10 months after the incidents. The firm’s partners may have breached their legal obligations under the Lawyers Conduct and Client Care Rules by failing to report the alleged misconduct immediately.

The question remains, will heads roll, and if so, how many? Russell McVeagh's chief executive Gary McDiarmid is expected to retire soon, but executives in human resources and within the partnership could still be in the firing line. 

Will the report be put down to a few individuals, or will its culture be addressed? Meanwhile, questions have been raised whether Russell McVeagh has tried to rectify the situation with the women. 

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