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NZ Big Law Firm’s Serious Sexual Harassment Allegations in #MeToo Sex Storm

No sooner had LawFuel published its piece on sexual harassment/assault issues with Baker + McKenzie when New Zealand’s arguably most prestigious law firm, Russell McVeagh, has been brought into the same firing line.

The sexual harassment issue with law firms internationally has been an issue for many years, made worse by the male-dominated legal partners sitting atop most firms.

If there’s one thing law firms are looking to avoid in the #Metoo age when diversity, tolerance, workplace safety and gender equality are all top-of-mind, its allegations such as those raised by the Newsroom.co.nz story on Russell McVeagh’s treatment of interns and allegations of serious sexual harassment -0r worse.

The firm has yet to formally respond to the story details outlined in the initial, Newsroom story, since covered in the Herald, NewsHub and other media, although Chief Executive Gary McDiarmid confirmed that serious allegations about the conduct of firm members had been received at that time.

The Police have reportedly kept an “open file” on the matter and LawFuel believes that the allegations against at least one former member of the firm is of a very serious nature.  No charges have been laid and Russell McVeagh have dealt with the matter internally, but the media exposure brings pressure to bear on both the firm and the Police regarding the incident.

What is more concerning is that law schools who have referred students to the leading law firm were sufficiently concerned about incidents involving the students that they took their own action to ensure the workplace safety of summer clerk interns.

The interns first approached the firm’s human resources department but evidently failed to achieve a satisfactory resolution, according to the Newsroom report.  The matter was taken up by Victoria Univeristy who said they were “extremely disappointed” in what had allegedly occurred and that Russell McVeagh had addressed the issue.

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VUW Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford was quoted in the Herald:  “I think this is a major issue for New Zealand society. It is quite difficult for a young woman in this situation to consider undertaking a complaint with the police and going through the court system.

“It’s as little as 3 per cent of our sexual assault cases actually do end up going through the police and into the courts.

“I think if anything that comes of this of any good, it’s that we face up to these things in our workplaces and make sure there’s a zero tolerance of it across the country.

Serious Allegations

Russell McVeagh has confirmed to Newsroom that “serious allegations” were made by two young women interns after unspecified events at a Christmas party in Wellington more than two years ago.

A third incident was made at El Horno Bar, regarding itself as Wellington’s “naughtiest and best bar” and includes web images of nakedness and frivolity, resulting in a police complaint.

LawFuel understands that at least some of the complaints also involve interns in a spa pool with one or more of the male lawyers.

Sexual Harassment Concerns

The issue of sexual harassment in law firms has been one that has occupied the legal media for a considerable period.  In New Zealand, an article in LawTalk from a female lawyer outlined issues she had experienced in a law firm, noting that ” The landmines hidden on our career paths aren’t always easy for others to see.”

An incident involving a senior Bell Gully partner and an intern lead to social media and general coverage, embarrassing the firm and further pointing the finger at the way younger females are treated in law firms.

Law firms everywhere have attempted to address issues relating to alcohol consumption, sexual harassment and related issues.  A recent ABC report in Australia noted that law firms were among the worst work places for sexual harassment.

A LegalWeek report from the UK noted that two thirds of

Russell McVeagh’s Gary McDiarmid said the allegations made two years ago were taken extremely seriously.

“We are committed to addressing any issues of harassment at Russell McVeagh, and in our profession generally, by making it known that any such behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

“In addition, we have been and are working closely with many of the other major law firms and the universities to develop a ‘transition to work’ programme and have appointed an independent person, to provide additional support to our staff and graduates within the profession as they commence their careers from university.”

 

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