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Explainer: Unravelling the Russell McVeagh scandal

This week’s disciplinary hearing into a former Russell McVeagh partner has laid bare the culture that, at the very least, used to exist at the law firm.

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Russell McVeagh’s former partner broke down several times today while apologising. Source: 1 NEWS

Those who have worked in the industry can tell you about it, and you could go so far as to say most New Zealanders had some form of image in their mind when thinking about lawyers at parties, functions or dinners.

Others would tell you the allegations at play here are merely the tip of the iceberg and there’s a whole underbelly of harassment and bullying in businesses across a number of different industries.

But this week spells out what some people working at Russell McVeagh would have experienced at around 2015, with a number of complainants and witnesses making it clear how much of a boys' club they felt it really was.

In 2018, allegations of sexual assault and harassment against a top lawyer at Russell McVeagh came to light.

The complainants were summer clerks at the time, working a period over 2015 and 2016.

They all say the former partner indecently and/or sexually assaulted them at the Wellington firm’s Christmas party in 2015.

The man accused has apologised to the women, but said there was no sexual or predatory intention behind his actions, and said he cannot recall all the claims of touching of breasts or bottoms.

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Two women described their fear of the man and described feeling manipulated by him. Source: 1 NEWS

Over the past four days, numerous witnesses have been called.

Some witnessed the alleged offending, others were there as character witnesses in their capacity as former colleagues, and another was there as the complainants used her as their confidant after the alleged offending.

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The man made inappropriate comments while under the influence of alcohol. Source: 1 NEWS

A major theme across all witnesses was the drinking culture at the firm, the man’s own drinking habits, but also the idea he and his team acted in a "laddish" manner.

There were claims of constant inappropriate comments; one former female colleague said they were very much ingrained in the culture.

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The man acknowledges he had a drinking problem at the time, however refutes he frequently made inappropriate comments, instead saying there was a "clique" within the team and they had their own set of "in-jokes" and ways of referring to people.

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It found a culture involving “excessive drinking” and at times “sexually inappropriate behaviour”. Source: 1 NEWS

The man denies that and said he hadn’t heard either of those allegations before the hearing started.

"Toxic-masculinity", "laddish", and "misogynistic" are all words that have been used by witnesses at separate times to describe the man’s team and their behaviours, the former female colleague saying she sometimes didn’t feel safe around them because of the comments they made.

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At one point during the practitioner’s cross examination, it was mentioned that there had been other partners or seniors at the firm who had been accused of that sort of misconduct but managed to get away with it.

Representing the Law Society's national standards committee, Dale La Hood asked the man if he’d done what he’s accused of because he knew he could get away with it.

It was brought up because in the man’s exit interview, he had raised the behaviour of others when making his case to his superiors.

“Were you feeling like you were untouchable?” asked La Hood.

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Malcolm Cotty says the law firm is committed to implementing the cultural changes suggested in the report, which came after revelations of a toxic sexual culture.

The man replied “no, not at all”, but said he brought it up because he knew his job was on the line and it was “about a fairness of treatment, not a licence to do those sorts of things".

There has been a lot of talk about actions and intentions.

The man said he accepted his actions, but because they were not intentionally sexual or predatory, he does not fully apologise nor accept what the women are accusing him of.

“I was just wanting everyone to have fun and I went about that in a completely stupid, idiotic, and drunken way,” he said.

He said any touching of breasts or buttocks would have been accidental because of his drunken dancing rather than sexual advances, and won’t admit or acknowledge any guilt of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct.

Hon Paul Heath QC raised the point that “drunk intent is still an intent”, and was it possible the man simply doesn’t want to believe he had behaved that way, to which the man conceded there was a risk of that being the case.

“In piecing together the jigsaw puzzle I’ve done it in the most favourable way.”

In his opening statements, Tim Bain, who is also representing the Law Society’s national standards committee, said the theme of this hearing was about power and power imbalances.

It’s clear there are a number of power imbalances that were at play here, and are hopefully no longer a central part of the industry.

They are between women and men, and also between seniors and juniors.

It’s not difficult to draw a comparison to many other industries here, but these power imbalances appear to manifest within the law profession in different ways to other workplaces.

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These issues were addressed in an independent 2018 report by Dame Margaret Bazley.

That report made it clear the firm’s culture included “crude, drunken, and sexually inappropriate behaviour”, which saw younger lawyers encouraged to drink excessively.

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It’s now put the spotlight on the whole legal profession and other industries. Source: 1 NEWS

Russell McVeagh said in a statement earlier this year that it's implemented at least 95 per cent of the recommendations from that report, which included more training and better policies.

The harrowing accounts of misconduct and culture heard at the tribunal this week happened more than five years ago, and the man at the centre of the allegations hasn’t worked at the firm for roughly the same amount of time.

Closing statements will be given today, but a judgment is not expected on the same day.

Once a judgment on the seven charges is delivered, though, a penalty could be given, including the man losing his right to practise law in New Zealand.