Sexual misconduct in the legal profession

The story of historical sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh is growing into a wider condemnation of ‘the legal profession’, with claims the problem ‘is endemic’.

Newsroom kicked this off with a series of articles (a big investigative task with a major law firm the target), beginning on 14 February with The summer interns and the law firm

Something went badly wrong with the student law clerk programme at national law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington over a recent summer.

Newsroom has learned of a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards the female students that saw our leading universities intervene, at least one report made to the police and a later reform of the clerk programme including a ban on alcohol and the launch of a helpline for them to seek support.

The matter went before the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the NZ Law Deans, who oversee the law schools sending graduates to Russell McVeagh and other workplaces.

Victoria University said today its staff were “extremely disappointed that the incidents occurred” but found Russell McVeagh senior staff “genuinely concerned” for the welfare of those involved and determined to ensure the safety of future clerks.

16 February: ‘Zero tolerance’ flies in face of reality

A former Russell McVeagh lawyer*, with close knowledge of its handling of complaints of sexual assault and harassment against summer clerks, says beware of the law firm’s carefully worded public responses. 

Having watched this saga unfold from a relative degree of proximity in my opinion Russell McVeagh’s reaction to the very compelling allegations of sexual assault and harassment was commercial and focused on harm minimisation – and not exclusively in the best interests and wellbeing of the vulnerable victims as well as several staff who had bravely chosen to support them.

This disjunct between what Russell McVeagh has said to the media and the reality is best illustrated by comparing what actually happened to the representations made in the carefully crafted spin that highly paid PR consultants would have encouraged Russell McVeagh to pump out.

17 February: Lawyers intervened to protect clerk

A further incident has come to light involving one of the men at the centre of claims of serious sexual assault at law firm Russell McVeagh – just months after his departure from the law firm.

Two informants have provided detailed information to Newsroom about events that played out at a lawyers’ conference after-party in a provincial town.

Newsroomrevealed on Wednesday that five clerks on the firm’s summer programme made complaints of serious sexual assault and harassment against two male lawyers at the firm.

In the latest revelation, a group of people had to intervene to help a summer clerk being pursued by one of the two men at a bar, where lawyers from the conference had gathered late at night.

21 February: Law firm not told of complaints against solicitor

A premier national law firm that hired a former Russell McVeagh solicitor after he was accused of sexual misconduct says it was led to believe by a reference check that the incident was minor.

The firm, smaller than Russell McVeagh but a leading name in the profession, says it would not have hired the man in its Wellington office if it had known what went on at the El Horno bar on a January night in 2016.

The lawyer was accused of sexually assaulting a “summer clerk” who worked at Russell McVeagh. The incident was reported to the Police at the time but no action was taken.

22 February: Why wasn’t the Law Society told?

Allegations of serious sexual assaults against students on law firm Russell McVeagh’s summer clerk programme, which should have been reported by the firm’s lawyers at the earliest opportunity, took eight to nine months to reach the Law Society.

Newsroom has confirmed the matter reached the profession’s regulator only when one of the young women involved told the society, despite lawyers’ clear obligation to report such misconduct.

The lengthy delay in the matters being brought to the attention of the Law Society could mean Russell McVeagh lawyers are in breach of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act whistleblowing procedures.

The Law Society regulates all lawyers in New Zealand including in relation to misconduct.

Its president, Kathryn Beck, has confirmed in an interview with Newsroom that it first became aware in September 2016 of the Russell McVeagh summer clerk allegations of sexual assaults which occurred in December 2015 and January 2016.

22 February: Law firm vs law firm

Law firm Russell McVeagh strongly rejects another firm’s claim it did not inform it in a job reference for a lawyer that the man had been investigated for sexual assault.

Russell McVeagh claims its partners had two face-to-face meetings with the prospective employer, Duncan Cotterill, and was up-front about the inquiry into a sexual assault allegation involving the solicitor.

Duncan Cotterill has now responded to that new claim, saying it has no record of a second meeting and challenging Russell McVeagh’s portrayal of the first discussion.

It says it was only told there had been a sexual encounter between the solicitor and a clerk – with an implication it could have been inappropriate but consensual. It says there was no mention of Russell McVeagh investigating a sex assault claim or that the police had opened a file on the matter.

On Nine to Noon on February 15, Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood told Kathryn Ryan the firm had been asked for a reference in relation to one person “and we’ve been very open with that. Very open and transparent”.

24 February: “This letter is not intended to threaten Newsroom…”

Law firm Russell McVeagh instructed Auckland QC Adam Ross to write to Newsroom upbraiding us on our reporting of the allegations about the sexual abuse and harassment on its summer clerk programme two years ago.

His letter says the scandal has presented a “very difficult situation for the firm” and claims Newsroom’s informants have “other agendas they are not disclosing to you”.

The letter wrongly claims Newsroom has published material without knowing its validity, or knowing the unspecified “circumstances with the firm” of anonymous sources whom Russell McVeagh is trying to identify. It questions the practices and fairness of our Investigations. Newsroom rejects these claims; our team has been painstaking and meticulous in its research and confirmation of material.

This is a story of abuse of power and as such those providing information wish to distance themselves from further abuse of power. That is why we fiercely protect sources, but we would not run a story without them. It is why, in a story such as this, confidentiality is necessary.

26 February: ‘Review could cause more harm than good’

Law firm Russell McVeagh announced an external inquiry into itself on Friday, after more than a week of controversy over how it handled complaints by summer clerks of sexual assault and harassment by its male staff in Wellington two years ago.

Here, two lawyers specialising in legal ethics and employment law, Kathryn Dalziel and Stephanie Dyhrberg, examine the wisdom of what Russell McVeagh announced – and set out in bullet points what it should be doing.

26 February: 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.

Lawyer Linda Clark adds her views at The Spinoff: How the legal profession has excused and minimised the Russell McVeagh scandal:

It’s the biggest scandal to rock the legal profession in years. Yet the official response to the Russell McVeagh revelations been so woefully inadequate, says special counsel Linda Clark.

I work with a group of simply terrific young women. They are bright, engaging, hard working and professional. These women – and so many others like them – need to feel supported by the legal profession and in particular by senior lawyers and partners. They need to feel secure enough to talk about harassment without fear. They need to know that disclosing an incident of harassment won’t cost them their job. They need to know that the profession won’t try to minimise what happened to them, or find ways of excusing the behaviour. They need to know that they will be heard.

So far, the legal profession has struggled to provide the leadership these young women deserve.

The Law Society issued a statement last week, crafted in the kind of passive vanilla sentences so favoured by my profession.

‘The disclosures over the past week will have made every lawyer in New Zealand consider their workplace and also their profession,’ the Society said. Yes, indeed.

Lawyers are experts at ‘considering’. But, as we now know, not so expert at a range of really important other things, like keeping young women safe at work, or being proactive to ensure allegations of misconduct (or possibly crimes) are investigated quickly and thoroughly, or even – and I’m not being glib – knowing how to drink alcohol without being a creep.

In recent years, a number of law firms have developed diversity programmes, seminars targeted for women, engaged consultants to educate partners about unconscious bias. I have participated and even led some of these. They demonstrate a genuine commitment in the profession to support and encourage women to progress.

But in conversations with young women lawyers this week it has been truly depressing to see how those initiatives – as welcome as they are – have not moved the dial.

To fix that the profession needs to be honest with itself. It needs to listen to young women and it needs to do more (much more) to ensure these women are not subjected to harassment, unwanted touching or assault. If they are, then the profession needs to call out the perpetrators without delay, even the so-called good guys.

That’s a big ask.

Lawyers are generally very good at protecting themselves, legally. But Russell McVeagh and other firms are under increasing pressure to address this properly and publicly.

If the stories keep coming out without being adequately addressed, and without ” the profession needs to call out the perpetrators without delay”, then the whole profession is tainted.

RNZ this morning: Sexual misconduct in law firms an ‘open secret’ for decades

Several Victoria University law students on internships at Russell McVeagh have complained of being sexually assaulted by lawyers two years ago.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, AUT senior law lecturer Khylee Quince said that some years ago a student had told her of an evening drinking session at Russell McVeagh’s Auckland office which ended with staff having sex on the boardroom table with several students.

Ms Quince said the reason why she decided to speak out was because it was an “open secret” that those sort of things had gone on in big law companies for years.

Khylee Quince told Morning Report she’s had dozens of messages since going public at the weekend.

“Lots of survivor stories, ranging from the very serious to the quite bizarre, behaviours around humiliation and forcibly embarrassing young women for fun.”

Ms Quince said the Auckland incidents had been a wake-up call to the university in advising students about alcohol and looking after themselves, although interns continued to go to the law firm.

This issue looks like it isn’t going to go away easily.

52 Comments

  1. RNZ: Govt has no plans to cut relationship with Russell McVeagh

    The government has no plans to cut off its relationship with top law firm Russell McVeagh in light of recent revelations of sexual assault complaints.

    At her weekly press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Russell McVeagh needed to investigate the “significant allegations”.

    But she stopped short of saying the government would stop using the firm’s services.

    “[Russell McVeagh] need to undertake that work for themselves, but at this point, I’m not having any conversations with government departments about repercussions in any way.”

    Attorney-General David Parker was also at the press conference with Ms Ardern for an unrelated announcement.

    Asked whether Russell McVeagh should be struck off the panel of lawyers the government uses, Mr Parker said he “wouldn’t jump to that conclusion”.

    “But as the Prime Minister’s already indicated, there’s more work that needs to be done by Russell McVeagh.”

    The rules for government procurement included “appropriate requirements of good conduct”, he said.

    https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/351303/govt-has-no-plans-to-cut-relationship-with-russell-mcveagh

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  February 27, 2018

      If people get drunk and do stupid things after hours, this is no reflection on the firm. The people were reprimanded, but I fail to see that the firm should be punished for the actions of some idiots that took place 10 years ago. It is highly unlikely that any firm condones staff drinking and having sex, so blaming the firm for what some individuals did a decade ago is absurd.

      Either women are capable of making decisions about sex or they are not. I’d rather assume that we are capable of knowing when we are drinking too much and what the consequences are likely to be.

    • Blazer

       /  February 27, 2018

      Good article by Linda Clark….this issue smacks of the …’you’ll never work in this town…again’ maxim enjoyed by…powerful people.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  February 27, 2018

        It is demeaning to women to treat them like small children who are incapable of knowing that drinking alcohol will make them drunk and that any sex that goes on must be the man exploiting the woman, as if women were not capable of deciding to have sex.

        This was 10 years ago. The young women were legally adults and should be considered to be capable of making their own decisions.

        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  February 27, 2018

          Is a drunk person susceptible to coercion as opposed to temptation? I rather suspect not. In that case the only coercion could be subsequent, as in enforcing secrecy.

          • Kitty Catkin

             /  February 27, 2018

            Alcohol is notorious for lowering inhibitions. Every adult knows that.

            I dislike the idea that women are always victims in these situations. We can’t have it both ways. Whatever one thinks of this behaviour, one has to give women credit for knowing what they are doing. It can’t always be the man-as-villain and the woman-as-helpless-victim.

            The stirring up of this ancient history can do nothing useful. I can well believe that the young women regretted their actions, but as what happened was between consenting adults, it can’t be harassment (and if it had been rape, it would have gone a long way beyond harassment) and should be let to stay in the past where it happened. What does Miss Quince expect to happen ?

  2. Blazer

     /  February 27, 2018

    if Govt and Councils stopped using the big law firms ,they’d go broke.Shoud have dispensed with Russell/McVeigh years ago after the 80’s scandals involving this firm.Try 30 Pieces of Silver’ a book by Tony Molloy.The audacity of RM ,threatening IRD , stonewalling,and deception on a …grand scale.The 3 Simons.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  February 27, 2018

    Sexual misconduct flourished in Obama and Coney’s FBI:
    http://dailycaller.com/2018/02/25/fbi-sexual-misconduct-comey/

    • Gezza

       /  February 27, 2018

      Are they a New Zealand law firm?

    • Gezza

       /  February 27, 2018

      I was wondering how long it would take you work out PG’s post had nothing to do with Obama & the FBI, Sir Alan, & that therefore you were obviously just wasting space here. As anybody intelligent would know.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  February 27, 2018

        The post is about sexual misconduct in the legal profession. The FBI is full of lawyers and has just been exposed as rife with sexual misconduct. As anybody intelligent could have worked out.

        • Gezza

           /  February 27, 2018

          This is New Zealand not the USA – as even a fool would know. I have no more time for ya anti-FBI obsession, Sir Alan. Tell it to the Marines.

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  February 27, 2018

            So #MeToo had nothing to do with the RM scoop, Gezza. Tell it to the Marines yourself.

            • Gezza

               /  February 27, 2018

              You could maybe mention that to them in passing when you talk to them about your other irrelevant utterings.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              Says the guy who just spent the afternoon sidetracking a discussion.

        • Mefrostate

           /  February 27, 2018

          Ok, I’ll engage with this.

          Sexual misconduct is rife right through both American and New Zealand society, and is and is especially pronounced in areas with ‘boys club’ attitudes and male-dominated power structures. The legal profession is but one example of this, along with recent revelations about entertainment, politics and tech, as part of the #MeToo movement. Feminists have been talking about these problems for years.

          It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that such misconduct was rife at the FBI during the Comey and Obama years, and likely pre- and post-dates them as well. Indeed, as your article states “The latest incident was reported only last week.”

        • Mefrostate

           /  February 27, 2018

          I should also add that Comey’s handling of sexual misconduct at the FBI, and his lack of transparency in the information provided to Horowitz’s review, look far from satisfactory.

        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  February 27, 2018

          I’ve no disagreement with any of that, Mefro. I would just add that habitual misuse of alcohol also plays a significant role and where it occurs I would not be surprised to find increased sexual misconduct.

          • Mefrostate

             /  February 27, 2018

            Good god we’re in agreement. Am I a libertarian now?

            • Gezza

               /  February 27, 2018

              I think you might be a Marine 🤔

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              Probably not but I have an open mind.

            • Mefrostate

               /  February 27, 2018

              Rich people earned all their wealth!

              The loony left are just jealous of their success!

              Lazy poor people just need to pull themselves up by the boostraps!

              Regulation is pointless pen-pushing by bored bureacrats!

              Gee, this is easy.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              Careful. I think boostraps might be a Lefty construct.

            • Gezza

               /  February 27, 2018

              The difficulty this presents for members of the legal fraternity is that they have a special status & present themselves as men & women of probity, high ethical standards & exemplary good behaviour. Especially so wid de big firms.

              Judges are selected from the ranks of lawyers.

              Scandalous behaviour is just not a good look & no doubt the Law Society is embarrassed by it all too.

              Power imbalance. Nubile impressionable 19 year olds plied with drink . Blackmail potential. Reputational damage…

              Rather like the recent revelations about the HRC.

              It just looks really bad.

            • Gezza

               /  February 27, 2018

              I’m outa here. The Marines have opened fire.

            • Mefrostate

               /  February 27, 2018

              It does look bad, Gezza, but I think social mechanisms will work well here: media have done their fourth-estate role & informed the public about the goings-on at RMV; RMV’s reputation will take a hit, and clients will be less likely to re-purchase their services; quality graduates will be less likely to work at RMV, hindering their ability to attract talent; RMV & other firms will see this and ensure that their systems for handling sexual misconduct are better in the future.

              All good stuff, IMO.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              Spoken like a true libertarian, Mefro.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018
            • Mefrostate

               /  February 27, 2018

              I’m unsure about that one, Alan. On its face it looks like Labour looking after their union mates. But I’m open to the argument that the money would be better used elsewhere, especially if Aspire wasn’t targeting low socio-economic students very well. Then-again, giving a leg-up to 250 really talented kids in bad backgrounds seems an excellent way to open
              up social mobility, rather than spreading that money thinly over the other hundreds-of-thousands of kids.

              Overall I probably land on it being a bad call to scrap Aspire.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              I’d go with that, Mefro. Seems to be a case for improving the targeting rather than scrapping it. And for getting previous successful holders to visit target schools to inspire future applicants and their parents.

            • PartisanZ

               /  February 27, 2018

              Surely there must be an NGO from the flowering Charitocracy who can take up the Aspire Scholarship Alan? It looks so good … so ‘worthy’ …

              The National government seem to have successfully de-Maori’d that kid from Opotiki … so I’m sure it’s gonna look even better if a bunch of really caring, well meaning Rich White Folks do that sort of thing in future … with a really fancy, carefully ‘branded’ name and a trendy CEO …

              Comment by Warratah: “only 29 students have so far finished school and of those 7 received NCEA Level one or achieved no qualification at all. There are other stats which also reflect badly on this scheme.”

              E.g. “Of the students who were allocated and took up Aspire scholarships, Salesa said 14.4 per cent had already attended a private school prior to taking up the scholarship.

              “Only around 28 per cent came from deciles 1-3 schools. This suggests that the Aspire scholarships were not effectively targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

              Salesa said the scholarship criteria relied on self-selection from families, information on parental income and assets only, and selection of recipients by random ballot.” …. Hold up there!

              Did I read that correctly? “RANDOM BALLOT” FFS!

              “Scholarship holders then had to separately gain acceptance from a private school, making it more likely that the recipients were students who would have been able to do well in a state school.”

              It’s a disgrace All Right!

            • PartisanZ

               /  February 27, 2018

              Then you gotta ask … Why PRIVATE schools? Why?

              Why not high decile, high-achieving State Schools?

              And then you gotta ask … Why high decile, high-achieving State Schools? Why not resource the school the kid comes from? Or why not resource the kid individually at the school he comes from?

              Then you gotta ask … Why only some semi-randomly selected kids?

              And then you just gotta ask … WHY!?

            • Gezza

               /  February 27, 2018

              I’m trying to work out if any of these kids were having sex, helping out at legal firms or being employed by the FBI.

            • Alan Wilkinson

               /  February 27, 2018

              Why did that kid succeed while his peers failed, PZ? He seems to have more clues about that than you.

  4. Jonny

     /  February 27, 2018

    Loving the commentators elsewhere saying it’s an old white male problem.
    The stories so far eepsically Ms Quince’s one involves young Maori students and Maori partners from the RMA treaty gravy train division. Diversity is causing the issues for RMc here.

  1. Your NZ on sexual misconduct in the legal profession | The Inquiring Mind
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