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Russell McVeagh’s Departing Partner & Solicitor in the Wake of the Sex Abuse Allegations

Tom Burnett

All publicly involved in the Russell McVeagh sexual harassment incidents from the now infamous 2015/16 summer clerk season, have claimed privacy as the reason why they cannot talk about the harassment perpetrators.

One of the alleged offenders was a partner who was released from the firm and another was a senior solicitor or associate who went first to Duncan Cotterill, then evidently overseas where he remains, LawFuel believes.

But what, exactly, does the report from Dame Margaret Bazley say about how these people were ‘released’ from their firm?

One of the key incidents, involving the  then partner, resulted in the four female summer clerks and a trusted female solicitor talking with the firm’s HR director in early February 2016.  It was, evidently, an emotional meeting.

“. . by this time there was a process underway to negotiate the
exit of the partner concerned, but he was still in the office in the days following the
clerks’ meetings with the HR Director and the clerks told me of their anxiety from
seeing him in the office. This was conveyed to the HR Director, and the partner
subsequently worked out of the office while his departure was negotiated,” the report recorded.

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When the partner and the other solicitor involved in the incidents eventually left the firm there was little communication with the affected summer clerks or other staff, to the point where details were conveyed to some via friends working in other law firms.

The solicitor who left the firm sent an email in very positive terms about his departure whilst a reported “glowing” testimonial email was sent when the partner departed the Russell McVeagh premises in Wellington.

Dame Margaret Bazley’s report is clear that the privacy concerns of the clerks could well have been preserved without undertaking the degree of secrecy regarding the two departures.

No Protocol Followed

The firm did not follow its own, two page Sexual Harassment in the Workplace protocol and little was done to properly provide for the summer clerks who had been affected by the various incidents.

The handling of the incidents was largely left to the HR Director, who told me that
she unsuccessfully requested the Chief Executive to come to Wellington to assist.
While the HR Director provided pastoral care, this was insufficient given the
number and seriousness of the allegations . . .

. . . These failures have had serious consequences for the summer clerks involved and
those who supported them at the time. They have also undermined staff trust in
the firm and have done considerable damage to the firm’s reputation.

Law Society Inaction

Much has also been made of inaction by the Law Society, although the Bazley report says no complaints – rightly or wrongly – had been made to the Society regarding the illegal activity –

The Law Society told me that, prior to 2016, there had never been a misconduct
report based on sexual harassment or sexual assault in the context of an
employment relationship.

There is now a complaint to the Law Society over the firm’s failure to notify the Society of what had occurred.

The Departing Partner

But what of the departing partner and the manner in which he was dealt with.

The Bazley report indicates that the firm did not have any specific policy for dealing with the reallocation of files in such cases and severely criticises the lack of a formal system by which departing partners are dealt with.

A small number of high value files were retained by the departing partner with new instructing solicitors.

The firm retained its role as instructing solicitor with the departing partner
continuing his work in relation to two files. For one of those files, this meant
ongoing work up to November 2017. In addition, in September 2016, the firm
agreed to work with the former partner on an existing but dormant file at his
request. At that time there was no specific consideration given to whether the firm
should still be working with the former partner, either from a staff welfare
perspective or otherwise.

The report criticises the firm’s lack of judgement in continuing to work with the former partner, particularly following its earlier failure to carry out a full independent investigation into the harassment allegations.

Second, the firm did not consider the broader
staff well-being implications of such contact, both in terms of the former partner’s
physical presence in the office and in terms of the message it sent to staff about
the firm’s interpretation of the incidents. Third, the firm did not consider the
reputational risk involved in such contact.

Matters raised about meetings with the former Russell McVeagh partner, whether he visited the firm’s Wellington offices, or any others, and the ongoing relationship with him were not correct in commucations with Law School Deans and in an interview (with partner Pip Greenwood) on Radio New Zealand.

These were all matters that left the firm’s reputation in terms of what had occurred in particularly bad shape.

The protocols for dealing with law firm partnership departures is yet another of the areas about which the firm has work to do and specific directions to undertaken pursuant to the Bazley report recommendations.

Russell McVeagh's Departing Partner & Solicitor in the Wake of the Sex Abuse Allegations 3

Russell McVeagh's Departing Partner & Solicitor in the Wake of the Sex Abuse Allegations 4
Dame Margaret Bazley – Image: ODT

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