The interns & the law firm

A welcome bomb put under Russell McVeagh

This comment piece for Newsroom has been penned by someone with a close awareness of the process the women interns had to face after sexual assaults and harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh and in the years since. We have agreed not to identify the writer.

Once again, a lot of pain for not much gain.

The Bazley review of Russell McVeagh continues the process started by a courageous group of young women to “rip the lid off the problem” as lawyer Steph Dyhrberg put it.

Let’s pause a minute to think about those smart, innocent young lawyers and the rough few months they’ve had as the horror that began in December 2015 casts a bleak shadow over 2018. And it’s not over yet. In the months to come, as the Law Society complaints process will trundle on, forcing more re-living and re-telling of the awfulness that was their first professional work experience.

Many victims of sexual violence find the subsequent period and processes far worse to cope with than the assault itself, as bad as that was – and these women are not alone in that. They’re vindicated in that the review heard them and found that Russell McVeagh responded appallingly badly. But to describe this as being “managed poorly” seems hardly strong enough. How about “the firm acted unlawfully?” Don’t we have employment laws in this country that we require employers to meet? Even if the employer is one of our largest law firms, full of smart people who know the law?

The review refers to the firm taking internal advice. That’s a euphemism for more incident management. Pretty handy to have some in-house smarts to help you with butt covering. Even more handy to have HR people to deploy for tea and sympathy along with the casual mention of defamation proceedings. The attempts to silence the clerks were despicable.

A bomb has been put under the Wellington office and not before time.

The report makes a lot of recommendations and they do require The Factory to rebuild from the ground up. A bomb has been put under the Wellington office and not before time.

But who’s paying? Clients will pay for the expensive review, as costs are passed on.

The young women are paying every day. Don’t forget they’ve all had to find other jobs. Yes, the alleged male perpetrators have too, but they got help from the firm. The partner even got a glowing farewell email.

Some of Russell McVeagh's profits – say, a figure to match what’s been spent on the review – should go to an NGO like the Sexual Abuse and Prevention Network. And it should come directly from the profit share of the partners, who could and should be showing leadership, even this late in the piece.

The review does not recommend anyone gets fired. At the very least heads should roll in the HR department. Their actions at the time and in all the time since the summer of 15/16 merit at least some form of employment sanction. Surely. Partners should be made accountable too. They looked the other way. The report indicates that there had been earlier problems with the partner involved in the sexual assaults. In that sense these young women were lambs to the slaughter. It’s unconscionable.

Don’t forget that while the PR machine was hard at work, a group of law students who had been violated were probably struggling to sleep, let alone to focus on their studies.

HR and the firm’s management poured resources into managing what was for them, an “awkward problem”. The report doesn’t once mention any care and concern shown to the clerks. On the contrary, the clerks were providing emotional support to someone in HR scared of losing their job. Hardly the behaviour of a good employer.

As the narrative unfolds, we get a sense of how long the firm had to get ready for this going public. Appendix 2 of the report sets this out. During 2016, while Russell McVeagh got an inkling that the problem might not go away, despite their best endeavours to tamp it down, they mounted a charm offensive. How strange, the timing of updating the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Policy in April 2016, the Rainbow Tick in June 2016, the pink breakfasts for law students and other blatant efforts to front-foot the issue. Don’t forget that while the PR machine was hard at work, a group of law students who had been violated were probably struggling to sleep, let alone to focus on their studies.

When the shutting down of the clerks’ voices didn’t work, and word reached the university system and the Law Society in September and October 2016, the firm probably ramped up the preparations. There were tears from the partners in meetings then too. Call me cynical, but they really had a lot to lose, and a lot of warning to try and stem the flow.

And yet when Newsroom broke the story in February of this year, they weren’t prepared at all. They bungled it. They dug a hole for themselves large enough to require a bit of back-filling by an independent review.

Parity partnerships and the model of clerking has been shown for what it is – extremely exploitative and destructive of many bright, hard-working young people. Changing that model is going to affect the bottom line. Let’s see if the firm can put its money where its mouth is and do that for the long haul.

And while we keep a watchful eye on that, let’s not forget the pain and suffering of the young women who were assaulted.

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