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The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue – Is the “Clerking Culture” To Blame?

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 4

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 5The mounting media storm surrounding the Russell McVeagh sex-intern scandal has seen Radio New Zealand and others interview key players, including Victoria University Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford, who told the Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan that the Police had kept the allegations made against at least two senior male members of the firm open.

No charges have been laid against anyone and Russell McVeagh confirm that “serious allegations” were made and that of those involved in the complaints they have left the firm, including ‘a predator’ who had left.

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 6The story was broken by Newsroom.co.nz and reported in LawFuel yesterday.

The University said it had become aware of the issue through both formal and informal processes, the latter including the visiting to the campus of one perpetrator from the firm who had come into close contact with one of his victims at the university.

The Vice Chancellor spoke of speaking to the Police sexual assault team in Wellington regarding their investigation.

Newsroom’s investigation continued with further allegations regarding Russell McVeagh’s approach to its internships with claims that “bio-booklets” of prospective law clerks was sent to senior male lawyers describing the “menu” of forthcoming interns.

Another ex-Russell McVeagh support staff person told Newsroomthat events organised for summer clerks catered for three bottles of wine each to ensure they enjoyed the evening. Incidents occurred time and time again. “It was like watching a trainwreck waiting to happen in slow motion.”

There has been no indication that either of two lawyers accused of sexual wrongdoing during the summer clerk programme was disciplined by the firm after complaints to its human resources department of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour at two Christmas functions and a Wellington bar.

The serious nature of the incidents created equally serious consideration by law schools and the Vice Chancellors responsible for the schools and their students.

Are Changes Ahead?

The NZ Vice Chancellor’s committee discussed the issue, being disappointed about what had happened and took steps to “strengthen the processes” for young women in particular who enter law firm internship programmes.

He said the universities could be better able to help prepare people entering these roles.  The problem is that normal standards of behaviour are expected when these people join their firms.

Those standards failed on this occasion.  The ‘culture of clerking’ in law firms is something that has concerned the universities, although it is not confined to law firms.  It also occurs in other firms beyond legal practices, Professor Guilford said.

Hear the RNZ interview with Grant Guilford:

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 7

Clerking Culture

Is the ‘internship culture’ contaminated? Issues have been raised and Law Society president Kathryn Beck says they have not been operated ideally, with alcohol being an issue that places the interns at risk on occasion.

She confirms that the issues occur in any workplace, not just the law profession. We need a ‘speakout’ culture, she says.

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 8Kathryn Beck (left) also told RNZ that the Law Society worked with the universities to address the issues.

She said it was “unbecoming conduct” and could involve the Law Society looking into the issue should a complaint be made.  However others can make complaints, beyond those directly involved in the issue.

The current overriding issue is preserving the privacy of the victims.

One of the issues that has arisen is that the complaints were made via Russell McVeagh’s HR department Lesley Elvidge said it should be very clear that certain behaviour is unacceptable. “women aren’t up for grabs,” she said. Education on those issues should be clear so that people can speak out about inappropriate behaviour.

The problems often arise through work functions but it should be a cultural issue that does not permit such problems, she said.

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 9

The Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 10Amazon Channels – CBS All AccessThe Law Firm Sex Abuse Issue - Is the "Clerking Culture" To Blame? 11

  1. Kathryn Beck says the legal profession/law society need a ‘speak-out culture’? Yes, of course. So what happens when someone ‘speaks out’ about being harassed for trying to uphold the rule of law and constitutional principles? The law society (a) does nothing to help; (b) supports the oppressor without checking the facts or the law; (c) puts the boot in – to the victim who ‘spoke out’, while kissing up to the oppressor because it wants a ‘better relationship’. Maybe now – belatedly – that won’t apply if the issues involve SEXUAL harassment. Maybe (but don’t rely on it). It’s not politically correct to stand by and ignore SEXUAL harassment. On the other hand, NZLS don’t want to upset top commercial law firms or senior practitioners. Kathryn, I wrote to you and asked you to talk, to discuss ways that NZLS could improve its response when lawyers asked for help to uphold the rule of law, because NZLS was literally worse than useless when I had my own issues with an arrogant and oppressive bureaucracy that was trampling the rule of law into the dust. You sent a pitifully weak response via the then-executive officer and have never responded to my subsequent email that included a specific positive suggestion.

NZ Law Society on Russell McVeigh Summer Clerk Issue

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