Legal

What really happened at Russell McVeagh’s bar

The incident that led to an Auckland partner in leading law firm Russell McVeagh resigning yesterday happened when he returned from an external lunch, joined a client event at his firm's offices and was refused a drink because of his condition.

Newsroom has learned the partner berated a young woman behind the bar, making clear his standing and position at the firm, and had to be escorted out by his colleagues.

The incident did not involve sexual impropriety but was considered to be bullying behaviour and the fact the partner had been drinking and returned to the office counted against him when an outside inquiry was held.

It is believed a concerning factor was that the woman affected did not immediately receive an apology from the firm's representatives at the function. Questions have been raised about this and the fact no one within the firm prevented the well-lunched partner from joining the client function at the outset.

The woman was said to be within her rights to refuse to serve someone who was intoxicated, under the firm and bar staff's alcohol licence conditions.

Russell McVeagh was the subject of intense public scrutiny this year after Newsroom revealed in February that a group of summer law clerks in Wellington had been subjected to sexual assault and harassment during their time at the firm two summers earlier. The revelations uncovered systemic problems at Russell McVeagh and in the wider law profession and led to an inquiry by former top public servant Dame Margaret Bazley.

Her report in July severely criticised Russell McVeagh and the firm said it accepted and would implement her suite of recommendations for improvements in its culture, management, governance and rules covering alcohol use, long hours by juniors and human resources policies. Its chief executive has retired and its head of human resources left the firm, following the earlier exit of the two male lawyers at the centre of the Wellington allegations.

When the firm made public this latest incident last month, it said the partner had been stood down while an inquiry was conducted into his making inappropriate comments while under the influence of alcohol at a client event.

Yesterday it announced publicly the partner had left the firm.

“A thorough investigation substantiates the complaints and the partner concerned has apologised and tendered his resignation,” the Russell McVeagh chair, Malcolm Crotty said.

“We are deeply disappointed in the partner at the centre of the investigation.

“Our firm is committed to changing the culture of our organisation and we all recognise that change requires collective and long-term commitment. All partners in the firm agreed to uphold and lead the change.

“The partner concerned let the firm down and we have now lost trust and confidence in him. The Board determined that his conduct has fallen below our expected standards and we have accepted his resignation. 

“There is no place for inappropriate conduct at our firm. Despite the circumstances, it is encouraging that our people have spoken up. “We have arranged to meet with the New Zealand Law Society.”

One figure aware of the case said the incident was once again an abuse of power by a senior lawyer in the firm but had not involved sexual impropriety. The firm had been deeply embarrassed by having an alcohol-related incident involving verbal abuse of a woman by a powerful male figure occur within two months of the Bazley report.

Read Newsroom's full coverage of the Russell McVeagh story here

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