Best of the Year
Law firm faces new sex claims
A university law lecturer has revealed new details of historical sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh - this time involving Māori women students being invited to the firm's bar and included in binge-drinking and sex in a boardroom after a seminar.
The lecturer, Khylee Quince, took complaints from a senior woman student at the University of Auckland to Russell McVeagh after the incident, but was told the sex was consensual and the two 19-year-old women involved were adult and needed to take responsibility for their own drinking.
She has spoken exclusively to Newsroom after posting details of the incident and the firm and university's lack of follow-up on her Facebook page.
Her statement comes in the wake of the scandal over allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assaults against summer clerks at the same firm's Wellington office two years ago.
Russell McVeagh issued a statement yesterday acknowledging incidents of "poor behaviour involving consensual sexual events, including on our premises" over the past 20 years.
For the first time it accepted such misconduct had occurred at partner level. The statement said sexual misconduct allegations of this type had been resolved by "termination of employment or a partner departing" describing that as "action appropriate to the severity of the misconduct".
The incident Khylee Quince has detailed occurred in the early 2000s in the firm's Auckland office and is one of six separate incidents involving Russell McVeagh male lawyers that Newsroom has been informed of and is investigating. These involve several men who have gone on to achieve high prominence or influence in the law.
On Friday Russell McVeagh attempted to draw a line in the sand over the sexual misconduct in the Wellington summer clerk programme, and its controversial responses, by announcing an 'external' review, by a person to be appointed by the firm.
On Saturday, Quince detailed her experiences trying to seek justice for the Auckland students affected by the board room night which involved a partner and a junior male staff member having sexual encounters with students while others socialised.
One incident involved other students walking in as oral sex was being performed on the board room table and the second was another staff member having sex with a student in a toilet area.
The students had access to free-flowing alcohol, including top-shelf liquor. Some of the broader group from the seminar left because of the level of drinking being encouraged.
Following the event, Quince and a university colleague requested a meeting with Russell McVeagh but the partner concerned did not front, instead his offsider and the firm's chief executive told them the matters were consensual and the students were adults who needed to control their own drinking. Quince says a complaint to the university was met with a response that the incident couldn't be taken further because it was off university premises and was after hours.
"Our immediate response [to Russell McVeagh] was we were outraged. It was not a matter of legal consent that we raised, it was of this being inappropriate in a workplace and involving staff members. Remember these weren't even Russell McVeagh employees. These weren't summer clerks. These were students. They were representing the university and they were treated like that on their premises.
"These were members of the public, really."
Quince was one of three Māori members of the University of Auckland law faculty. Their kaupapa was to provide Māori education for all law students but particularly to look after the academic and pastoral care of Māori law students.
She is now teaching law at Auckland University of Technology and says she had kept quiet on the Russell McVeagh scandal until now but had become "incensed at Russell McVeagh's response to sexual harassment and assault of young women by their staff - as if this was unusual".
"I'm not concerned about my anonymity at all. I'm more than willing to swear to this, because it happened," she said.
Quince said the two women involved became completely withdrawn for the remainder of their time at the university. "To be honest they went into careers that were tangentially in the law but not strict legal practice. This affected their reputation before they'd even gotten out there.
"Over the years I have wondered if we should have dealt with it differently but they deliberately distanced themselves from us because of the embarrassment."
Russell McVeagh said the incident Quince had disclosed did not involve a formal complaint, which it needed to proceed to a "full formal investigation" but also claimed "it was investigated fully and those involved were reprimanded." That lack of what it called a "formal complaint" had limited the firm's ability to prove the alleged misconduct.
The confirmation by Russell McVeagh about past incidents at the firm is in conflict with a statement to Newsroom 10 days ago by the chief executive Gary McDiarmid, who when quizzed about past incidents said: "Thank you for your email. We are not aware of other incidents."
(McDiarmid has been at the firm for 20 years, appointed chief executive in the late 1990s. He is leaving his position at the end of the year, a move which he says preceded the revelations about the summer clerk scandal.)
A senior partner Pip Greenwood, who fronted for media interview over the Wellington summer clerk issue after if first broke on Newsroom on February 14, told Newsroom reporter Melanie Reid that "post this event we have been very clear and we have taken steps to ensure that the safety of our staff is paramount".
She said current partners had been "very shocked by what happened" in Wellington, but "look I can't go talk about events way back in the past, with people who've left".
The firm's statement yesterday said the external review it planned of the summer clerk allegations was expected to include "an examination of Russell McVeagh's culture and how complaints are dealt with".
"There will no doubt be rumours or online chat about other sup-posed events in the past that either weren't known about at the time by management or were alleged and not proven or were not the subject of formal complaints. We are unable to comment on events that may or may not have happened in such circumstances."
In response, Quince told Newsroom: “It is disingenuous for the firm to claim that there was no “formal complaint” in relation to the incidents on their premises in the early 2000s. It was certainly our intention for our complaint to be dealt with in a formal fashion, and the presence and involvement of the firm’s CEO and a Senior Associate certainly affirmed that impression. We were not aware (nor were we made aware) of any other more “formal” process or channel through which to direct a complaint. In 20 years as a university teacher this meeting at Russell McVeagh remains the ONLY time I have ever been to a firm to deal with a matter involving the health and safety of students."
She added: "The firm also minimises the seriousness of the incident on the basis that legal consent was not in issue. Of course the reality of the politics of consent is problematic when alcohol consumption is involved, not because of the law per se, but because of public attitudes around victim blaming and the niceties of “he said she said” evidence that affect decisions to prosecute and jury decisions in sexual assault cases. The law specifically states that a person does not consent to sexual activity if the activity occurs while he or she is so affected by alcohol or some other drug that he or she cannot consent or refuse to consent to the activity.
"Further, the law also states that consent to sexual activity is negated where a person in a position of professional or commercial power or authority over another person induces consent with an express or implied threat to use that power improperly - in relation to law students, the argument is that there is an implication that failure to take part in excessive drinking or sexual activity will harm their employment prospects. For employees it is the threat of losing a position they already have.
"It is not enough for a major law firm to dismiss sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour of employees on the basis that it falls short of criminal assault. The criminal law exists independent from the obligations of an employer to provide a safe working environment for employees and the people they may come into contact with in the course of their employment – including other employees, clients and visitors.”
Stuff.co.nz reported the University of Auckland issued a statement saying it was not aware of a complaint such as Quince's being made to the dean of the law school or the Vice-Chancellor in the past 10 years, so would not comment till it had further information.
"Current policy would be to take this very seriously. If university students are invited to an event by a law firm or any prospective employer, the Dean expects that the hosting organisation would ensure appropriate and professional behaviour, and students and graduates treated with dignity and respect."