The interns & the law firm

‘Soul searching’ at Russell McVeagh

A senior female partner at Russell McVeagh says the law firm has undergone plenty of soul searching in the wake of its mishandling of sexual harassment complaints, but warned there is no “five-minute fix”.

Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood, along with board chairman Malcolm Crotty, fronted media on Thursday morning following the release of Dame Margaret Bazley’s damning report into the firm’s actions after young female staff complained of sexual assault or harassment from senior staff.

Crotty and Greenwood at points looked towards the floor, stone-faced, as Bazley outlined Russell McVeagh’s failures in responding to the women’s complaints, as well as broader issues with the firm’s culture both past and present.

Addressing the media, Crotty said the firm fully accepted Bazley’s findings and recommendations and was “profoundly sorry” for the serious impact of its actions and inactions on the women involved and other staff.

“We could have done better, and we should have done much better.”

Addressing Bazley’s finding that there were still some pockets of bullying within Russell McVeagh, Crotty said senior leadership had made it clear there was a “zero-tolerance” approach.

“There is no place in this firm for bullies: that message is clear, and our people must have confidence that our workplace is free of bullying and if they complain, that the bullying will stop.”

The review had highlighted problems with the firm’s hierarchical and siloed structure, he said, which it was determined to change into a more open and collaborative culture.

Asked about who at Russell McVeagh was being held accountable for its failures, Crotty said the firm was having “some difficult and sensitive discussions around that”.

He would not confirm whether there had been any resignations as a result of Bazley’s report, citing employment law and privacy concerns, but said partners took collective responsibility for Russell McVeagh’s shortcomings.

Crotty also declined to comment on whether the firm had suffered financially following the allegations, but said it had had and would continue to have “tough conversations” with its clients who expected change.

“Our clients will be looking to the future and they will be looking to see that we do what we say we’ll do.”

He thanked Bazley for her report, saying: “She has left no stone unturned and shone a spotlight in every corner of our firm.”

Greenwood said there had been “a lot of soul searching” within the firm after it commissioned Bazley’s review, with partners receiving a briefing about its contents on Saturday and holding an all-day meeting to discuss their response.

“One of the things we appreciate as an organisation is the type of cultural change we’re talking about is not a five-minute fix, and that some of the things we’ll be able to do quickly and we’ve started on that ... but some will take longer.”

She was heartened by the fact that staff had already started speaking out about their experiences of bullying as a result of Bazley’s findings.

The company had hired an experienced HR professional to work full-time in its Wellington office - an area of concern raised by Bazley - and would leave partners in no doubt about what was expected of them.

“We are very clear about what it is going to take to be a partner in this organisation and we will be holding people to account for that, and if there are people in this organisation who don’t meet those standards, then there will be consequences.”

External reaction

Justice Minister Andrew Little said Bazley’s findings outlined “pretty disturbing” behaviour at the law firm.

“Russell McVeagh ... describes itself as a leading law firm in this country and yet they’ve had conduct that I would think is an embarrassment to any lawyer.”

The report was particularly disappointing to Little given his previous career as a lawyer.

“My background is as an employment lawyer and I know there’s been some very good employment lawyers in Russell McVeagh, so I’m surprised Russell McVeagh could not have turned to their own in-house expertise to get these things right.”

However, he said it would be naive to think the behaviour was confined to one firm, and the Law Society and the entire legal profession needed to “step up and stomp out” the cultural issues.

He was unsure of what work Russell McVeagh was currently undertaking for the Government, but did not believe a ban on using the firm was necessary.

“You've actually got to change behaviour, I’m not sure that the Government to find other law firms to instruct or brief out their work is going to be a solution.”

Little said one of the problems identified by Bazley was that lawyers were made partners of a firm based on their legal talents, which did not necessarily align with their management skills.

While the Government had a “point of leverage” to deal with the issue through the Law Society, he had broader questions about whether it was the right body to handle employment issues.

“I think we’ve got to make sure that there is a place that employees of law firms can go to when they’re confronted with this sort of behaviour again that is safe for them to go to and where they can get action.”

Little said the legal profession could learn from New Zealand’s professional sports players’ associations.

“They’ve got an arrangement where they get good independent strong advocacy and work with the owners of the franchises and what have you and create a culture where the players can be developed or it’s safe for them to deal with issues.”

Little and his undersecretary for domestic and sexual violence issues, Jan Logie, said earlier the culture and conduct described by Bazley in her report was "totally unacceptable".

"Even though this is not a Government report I will be looking closely at all the recommendations. This report highlights the need for improvements in the legal profession,” Little said.

Little said he had spoken to a number of whistleblowers about changes that needed to occur to ensure a safer environment for women who worked in the legal profession.

Logie said the problems outlined by Bazley were not limited to Russell McVeagh or the legal profession.

"This underscores the magnitude of sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces, and I am hearing that many employers either don’t know how to respond or put their own business interests ahead of the welfare of people," she said.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said the report was another indictment of the culture that had been allowed to grow within the legal profession.

“I want to be clear that while this report is about appalling events and a dysfunctional culture, we should not for a minute believe this is isolated to one firm," Beck said.

The structures, cultures and work practices identified by Bazley were common across the legal profession and had historically served to keep issues out of the public eye.

Beck said the Law Society was committed to becoming more accessible than in the past, and driving a wider cultural change across the legal profession.

It was currently recruiting lawyers to a taskforce which would focus on tackling sexual harassment and bullying, and had received expressions of interest in the voluntary positions from a large number of lawyers.

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