The report into Russell McVeagh’s sexual harassment issues by Dame Margaret Bazley over incidents that occurred in 2016/16 involved an ‘out of control’ team and a widespread failure in the firm’s management and code of conduct.
The Bazley report said the firm’s ‘work hard, play hard’ culture that had involved excessive drinking and related issues, along with the culture and systems failures lead to the sexual harassment issues.
The report, released today at a press conference at the law firm’s Wellington offices, where the interns at the centre of the harassment issues were based, saw firm chair Malcolm Crotty express his firm’s regret over the incidents, saying he was “deeply sorry for the impact that the incidents . . had on the young women involved and our people.”
He also acknowedged the “serious mistakes” the firm had made in the way in which they had dealt with the issues, saying the firm had work to do to change the culture of the firm.
Dame Margaret’s 88 page report details her interviews with more than 250 people in what she describes as a complex review requiring a careful balancing of “a wide range of perspectives.”
The firm’s work hard play hard culture had lead to a breakdown in the ability to properly manage junior staff. She said the culture at the time had involved “excessive drinking and in some instances crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour.
“Junior lawyers and other young staff were encouraged to drink to excess,” she reported, noting that there had been no recent instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault or “alcohol-fueled misbehaviour.”
The incidents, involving five summer clerks who were sexually harassed over a three week period during the summer of 2015/16, did not see Dame Margaret investigate the specific issues as she had hoped due to reasons of privacy.
She expressed regret that she had not been able to do so, saying “I have reflected the wishes of the women concerned in the way the allegations have been described . . but I have concluded that the firm handled the incidents poorly. The failures have had serious consequences for the people involved.”
The report says the firm had displayed “failings n the firm’s governance, structure, management, policies, standards and systems, as well as the lack of a code of conduct.”
This raft of failings contributed to the management of the incidents in 2015/16, Dame Margaret said.
“I found that there was no-one in charge in the Wellington office, the team within which the incidents occurred was out of control and what was happening in that team was not noticed by the partners or brought to the attention of the Board.”
The report identifies the incidents that occurred, including the 2015 Christmas party in the Wellington office when the interns were nervous about a ‘skit’ they performed before the staff.
Among the allegations involving a senior partner, they note that –
- one partner put his hand around the clerk’s waist and lead her away from the bar before encouraging her to “skull” her drink and then tried to kiss her
- a partner on the dance floor touched an intern’s bottom and waist multiple times and grabbed under her breast
- at the end of the night another commenting about spilling wine on her top before inappropriate touching.
The report says the four clerks said they felt “intimidated, confused and uncomfortable.
“They told me they were distressed this had happened at a work function where they thought they should have been safe.
“They also told me they knew what had happeneed was wrong but weere initially unsure about whether to report it as no-one around them had reacted at the time.”
Pockets of Bullying
She also said she was surprised that there were “pockets of bullying, poor work management practices resulting in excessive work hours for junior lawyers and fear among lawyers and partners about the potential consequences of speaking out.”
She noted that the recent NZ Law Society report on harassment and bullying in the law profession was a widespread issue affecting the entire profession, although it did not serve to minimise the issues for Russel McVeagh.
Similarly she noted the widespread gender equality issues that have beset the legal profession generally, noting that “many talented women lawyers still elave the firm rather than progressing to partnership” which was a “big loss” to the firm.
Among the raft of recommendations made by Dame Margaret, which the firm has pledged to implement, is a recommendation for senior and junior women to explore what can be done to maintain career progression and reach partnership.
She recommends that the firm report back to the Law Society in line with the requirements of the Society’s Gender Equality Charter.
The report also request that the Board and partners commit to leading a programme of “transformational change” to the firm’s culture where staff across the firm have the chance to learn from one another’s perspectives.
A 10 year plan to implement and monitor the culture changes is also suggested.