This Story by Melanie Reid and Farah Hancock is published at www.newsroom.co.nz as shown
(Melanie Reid is Newsroom’s lead current affairs and investigations journalist)
(Farah Hancock is a Newsroom reporter based in Auckland who writes on education, conservation and technology)
I’m sure most regular Menz readers will be saying the same thing I am, “Where do you start on this one?”
A support person for one of the student clerks at the centre of the Russell McVeagh sexual assault scandal has spoken to Newsroom about the young woman’s struggle to be heard and to find justice.
Law firm Russell McVeagh told a student clerk complaining of sexual assault against a colleague to be careful not to defame him, to look at the whole summer programme ‘holistically’ and then arranged for meetings concerning the assaults to take place at a café in the firm’s building.
The advice, from the firm’s human resources team, is revealed by a support person who has been closely involved with one of the survivors of the scandal for almost two years.
The support person told Newsroom the former student felt like “the firm was primarily concerned with its interests – its reputation, its brand and its income. Only when the intern’s interests were in line with the firm’s interests, did they get assistance.”
In a detailed interview, the first with any of those closely connected with the case, the support person also outlines what happened when the Law Society first became aware of the matter.
Five students, who were part of the 2015-2016 summer internship programme at Russell McVeagh, made allegations ranging from sexual assault to rape. Involved were two Russell McVeagh lawyers. These two lawyers have now left the firm. One continues to hold a practising certificate, the other has left the country.
The support person, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identity of the intern involved, supported one intern in particular who was then able to share information about how to get support with other interns involved.
All the interns were in their early 20s and were among the best students at law school. The events which they alleged took place during the summer internship pitted them against one of New Zealand’s largest law firms.
The support person was made aware of the alleged assaults in April 2016 – four to five months after they occurred. By this time the young woman had already approached human resources staff at Russell McVeagh with the allegations and was struggling with the way the firm had managed the problem.
“When you are a very young university student you do not understand that the firm’s human resource people are not working for you. The interns took them at face value and believed they had their best interests at heart because that’s what they were repeatedly told.”
What the support person was told by the woman did not make her feel Russell McVeagh was concerned about the well-being of the students – rather that these young women were “a problem to be managed”.
“The intern I supported was never offered independent legal advice and never provided counselling. Russell McVeagh has repeatedly said they did a thorough investigation at the time yet this intern was never even asked about the assault on her.”
Interns expressed concerns that the alleged perpetrators would harm others in the future. They questioned their duties to protect other women in the profession. The human resources staff member responded by saying the men had not been found guilty in a court of law and it was defamatory to speak like this.
“She was advised she should look at the summer in a holistic way and not just focus on the one bad thing that had happened.” In the support person’s experience it was not “one bad thing” for the interns, but an experience of huge magnitude, affecting every part of their lives, as it is for so many who experience this type of behaviour.
There was no doubt Russell McVeagh was attempting to contain them, hush-up what had gone on, she said.
“The intern told me it felt like [they] were supported by human resources on the proviso they behaved in the correct manner, which was being silent. Their silence protected the firm.”
The support person said when they met, the intern was scared and felt threatened by Russell McVeagh, who she felt was “hounding” her.
“Their aspiration is to get into one of these big firms, they finally get there, things go wrong and it’s really the feeling that things had gone wrong, in a career-ending kind of way. It was never said to the women, but it was certainly implied that Russell McVeagh is a large and powerful firm and being on the wrong side of them could end your career.”
During the almost two years which followed they both explored how they could access support for the interns and hold Russell McVeagh’s handling of the allegations and the men involved in the alleged assaults to account through the systems available to them.
In that time, Russell McVeagh lawyers, despite being obliged to under rule 2.8 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act, did not report the misconduct of their colleagues to the Law Society.
“My guiding principle was no more harm should be done,” said the support person, “that meant working at the pace the interns were comfortable with”.
“I felt at times I was living in some sort of spy novel – that we were up against an entire system, because of all the connections.
What they found out from the Law Society was that the processes available would be likely to put the intern in the same room with the firm or the men responsible for the alleged assault whom the woman felt threatened by.
She said: “I was trying to find out how to get help for someone who’s a victim of this. It wasn’t particularly easy.
“I felt at times I was living in some sort of spy novel – that we were up against an entire system, because of all the connections.”
The Human Rights Commission
A settlement between an employer and employee in cases of sexual harassment can be mediated by a process through the Human Rights Commission. If settled without the need to go to a tribunal this process is confidential.
While this process focuses on individual cases, the support person discovered if all five women complained about the same employer and employees, the mediator may have linked the cases. However, whether or not that happened would not be up to them.
However, all five women would initially need to meet individually with the mediator and Russell McVeagh face-to-face first.
Some of the women concerned were considering this approach once news broke of millionaire politician Colin Craig breaching a confidential settlement with his former press secretary, Rachel MacGregor, broke. He had publicly shared details beyond what had been agreed at the commission mediation could be said as part of the settlement.
At this point, with a lack of faith in the strength of any confidential agreement made, the woman decided against making a complaint to the commission.
The Law Society
Another avenue pursued by the support person was making a complaint to the Law Society. The society regulates all lawyers, including in relation to misconduct.
The complaints process was explained to the support person by a society complaints process staff member. She said she was told complaints made against a lawyer are sent to the lawyer. For serious complaints, referral is to a national committee with a hearing likely to be held, where the woman would be face-to-face with the alleged perpetrator.
Shortly after that meeting with the complaints resolution part of the Law Society the support person and the intern were invited to meet then executive director Christine Grice.
In September 2016 Grice met them for two hours and was told in detail about the events of the summer.
“We were very well received by Christine. It was a key moment for her [the intern] because she felt someone high up in the profession was respectful, listened carefully and said “That should never have happened. I’m so sorry for you”.
The support person said the intern came away from the meeting feeling good and was eager to meet Grice again to explore options available. A complaints process had not been discussed with her in the meeting, because Grice knew they had already sought information about that, and she explained that that part of the Society’s work was a separate function.
“That’s when Christine said to us, ‘I can’t meet with you again on your own, someone from Russell McVeagh would have to be present because of my role heading up the Law Society’.”
This was a disappointment to the support person and another serious blow for the women involved.
“I just said to Christine: ‘Who is regulating these lawyers now? Are they just free to keep doing this?’. We were listened to, but there was no follow up action by the Law Society, although I was told they contacted the law school.”
Despite the interns not making a formal complaint, the Law Society did have an option open to it.
If it had reason to suspect misconduct, the matter could have been brought to the standards committee and an own-motion investigation could have been held. Due to the confidential nature of all Law Society complaints and investigations it is not known if this occurred. If it did occur, one man at least still holds a current practising certificate.
By this time the intern was about to head into final exams. Being forced to face the alleged perpetrator, or representatives from Russell McVeagh was not an ordeal she was interested in.
Throughout the process the support person attempted to access counselling services for the intern.
“I was worried about her and the toll that all this was taking on her, and on her grades. She was struggling to get through the day let alone the night and she really stopped caring about her grades.”
Finally, close to exam time, the woman approached the university counselling service. It was sympathetic, but told the intern there was a wait time of two to three weeks because the alleged assault happened the previous summer and was not classed as a crisis.
The support person managed to meet senior student services staff to try and get help sooner.
“I said, ‘I’m here because I’m trying to get this group of students support. This is what happened’. The very first thing they say back to me is ‘We’re sick of this’ and I say, ‘What do you mean?’ And they say ‘Accountancy is riven with this as well. And we’ve had enough’.”
The staff were appalled at the accusations. Any counselling and support resources the women wanted were made available. The staff also escalated the matter to the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Grant Guilford.
“Getting help was not easy, but we finally accessed it through the ACC sensitive claims process and it did help”.
The corporation has a system in place to deal with sensitive claims, which includes counselling.
Victoria University of Wellington
Guilford also said he was appalled at the allegations during a phone call to the support person. He wanted to meet Russell McVeagh to “have it out” with them.
The meeting took place on a Saturday during October 2016. Guilford rang the support person afterwards and said he thought the Russell McVeagh partners were genuinely remorseful.
The firm committed to overhaul the clerk programme and change alcohol-related policies. A helpline was introduced.
While the interns involved were trying to finish their degrees, find help and redress, and deal with the effects of their time at Russell McVeagh, the men carried on with their professional lives.
One remained involved with Russell McVeagh cases on legacy matters, although female staff were barred from working with him. He continued to receive industry recognition.
Another received a reference from Russell McVeagh and was employed at Wellington law firm Duncan Cotterill.
Just months after leaving Russell McVeagh one of the men was involved in a further incident which resulted in a group of people intervening at a social event following a lawyer’s conference to help a young female who they felt was being targeted by the man.
Russell McVeagh has announced an external review of the matter by Dame Margaret Bazley.
The support person said the woman would like to see evidence that women’s safety is being prioritised at the firm; for the Government to show support to these issues by cutting Russell McVeagh from its All of Government panel for legal work…
The support person told Newsroom: “I’ve talked to her about this. She is unsure at this stage if she will participate. To her it feels like the firm has had two years to prepare for the story to reach the public and during that time they’ve been on a charm offensive, getting a rainbow tick, focusing on diversity and equal pay. This external review feels like just another attempt to manage the public perception.”
The support person said the woman would like to see evidence that women’s safety is being prioritised at the firm; for the Government to show support to these issues by cutting Russell McVeagh from its All of Government panel for legal work; and for Russell McVeagh to do as it should have done two years ago to notify the Law Society and provide all of the internal documentation surrounding the removal of the lawyers in question.
“I’ve watched this intern lose two years of her life and the least that can happen is that there is some real acknowledgement by Russell McVeagh of the mishandling of the matters and the entrenched culture within the firm that has led to this”.