A report has found law firm Russell McVeagh had a culture involving “excessive drinking” and at times involving “crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour”.
The external review by Dame Margaret Bazley was investigating complaints of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct by five female clerks who were employed by the law firm during the summer of 2015-2016.
The report outlined the alleged incidents which include a male partner trying to kiss and touch four clerks at a Christmas party. The male partner and another male solicitor were also accused of inappropriate sexual conduct at two other events in following weeks.
Dame Margaret Bazely says Russel McVeagh failed to investigate the incidents and the firm “did not establish what happened to whom” and “did not understand the gravity of the situation”.
She says the initial response was so rushed it resulted in matters not being resolved when the clerks went back to university, causing “a great deal of ongoing confusion, anger and frustration” for the clerks.
The poor management of the complaints led to serious consequences for the people involved and the clerks losing faith in the legal profession.
The investigation also uncovered “grossly obscene” behaviour by another male partner who has since left the firm.
Dame Margaret Bazely says those incidents often happened in front of others and people would laugh or not say anything due to the seniority of the partner.
The report described a firm that does not have a “speak out” culture as purported and numerous lawyers and staff were frightened and felt powerless in the face of atrocious behaviour.
The investigation also received reports of bullying, sexism against women and inappropriate consensual relationships.
"I was told of atrocious behaviour by the small group of offending partners: yelling, swearing, rudeness, and sarcasm... belittling and disempowering behaviours,” Dame Margaret Bazely says.
She says bullying is in pockets of the firm and this was not acceptable.
Minister of Justice Andrew Little called the findings "totally unacceptable", and said it "highlighted the need for improvements in the legal profession".
Under-Secretary for Domestic and Sexual Violence Issues Jan Logie said the issues were not limited to Russell McVeagh law firm or the legal profession.
"This underscores the magnitude of sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces, and I am hearing that many employers either don't know how to respond or put their own business interests ahead of the welfare of people.
"This is something we need to address as a government and a country."
The report was highly critical of the management saying no-one in Wellington was in charge and the firm’s HR director lacked appropriate expertise to deal with the complaints. She says the chief executive, the board and the partnership should all shoulder some responsibility for the failings.
Dame Margaret Bazely says the firm had a strong ‘work hard, play hard’ culture and missed warning signs leading up to the incidents, including exit interviews from women who say they left the team concerned about drinking and “cultural issues”.
Both the male partner and solicitor left the firm after the incidents though the partner continued to work with Russell McVeagh in certain cases. This is despite the firm giving the impression to the summer clerks and the country’s top law schools that all work with the former partner had stopped.
The report says it was a “lack of judgement” to continue work with the partner.
Russell McVeagh says it is “deeply sorry” for the impact the 2015/2016 incidents had on the clerks. It says it made some “serious mistakes” and it is “dismayed it did not know many of the things affecting our people”.
The report has made over 40 recommendations which include more training, better policies in place and auditing.
Several investigations are still underway including by the Law Society.