Former high-flying lawyer at top firm fined for sexual harassment

Author
Sam Hurley ,
Section
Business,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 22 January 2019, 12:42PM
The lawyer was removed from the firm's partnership and later resigned following. Photo / Getty Images
The lawyer was removed from the firm's partnership and later resigned following. Photo / Getty Images

A former partner at a New Zealand law firm has been censured and fined by the Law Society following an investigation into his sexual harassment of two employees.

The partner, whose name is redacted from the Lawyers Standards Committee decision which considered his case, was removed from the firm's partnership and later resigned following his behaviour at two social events.

The firm then reported his conduct to the New Zealand Law Society and the standards committee began an investigation.

The findings were released today, with the committee ruling the lawyer's actions amounted to unsatisfactory conduct. It ordered he be censured, fined $12,500 and ordered to pay costs of $2500.

The first incident, which occured during the firm's Friday night drinks at its offices, saw the drunk partner touch the leg a female solicitor near him, the committee's decision reads.

He told her: "You are very attractive."

Upset, the female lawyer removed herself and wanted the firm's partners to be made aware of the incident but did not want to lay a formal complaint.

Senior lawyers at the firm, including the female solicitor's supervising partner, an employment partner, and the managing partner, then talked with the man about his behaviour.

He didn't deny his actions but said he had no recollection of them, which was understood to mean he had suffered an alcohol-induced memory loss or blackout, the decision reads.

The offending partner was rebuked by the firm and warned against any further conduct of the same nature. He was also told not to attend staff drinks functions in the near future.

But the partner's harassment reoccured - this time at the firm's end-of-year party.

On this occasion, the man directed unwanted attention towards a female employee of the firm, who was not a lawyer.

He approached the woman on the dance floor and pinched her bottom, leaving a bruise, the decision reads.

The partner was told to stop but he pinched her bottom again later in the evening.

After the bus ride back from the function venue, he also propositioned the employee, asking her, "Are you coming with me?"

The partner, the decision reads, was "visibly intoxicated" during these events, slurring his speech and walking unsteadily.

During the course of the same evening he also grabbed the same woman's wrist and forcibly squeezed her hand against his groin.

He told her: "This is for you."

The female employee immediately withdrew her hand, and another male colleague intervened to remove the drunk partner.

On the following Monday the second incident was reported by the female employee and the rogue partner met with the firm's other partners as part of an internal disciplinary process.

Again, he did not deny the events but said he had no recollection of them.

The partner was immediately suspended and the next day the partners removed him from the partnership before the man resigned.

His resignation took effect four months later, although he did not return to the office
following his suspension, the committee's decision reads.

The firm then reported the partner's conduct to the Law Society.

The committee, however, decided that a charge of misconduct before the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal was not justified in the circumstances.

It said there were a number of mitigating factors, including that the lawyer had taken full responsibility for his actions, shown significant contrition and remorse, and had taken steps to ensure there was no repeat of the behaviour.

The two harassed employees also indicated they were satisfied with the way the firm dealt with the matter internally.

The partner said he was ashamed, remorseful, and does not seek to excuse or minimise his conduct, the decision reads.

He has also taken "time out" from the law fraternity.

In responding to the committee, he also explained he had experienced an "intense personal crisis" at around this time, which had a profound impact on his wellbeing and mental health.

The ex-partner has no prior disciplinary history with the Law Society.

Neil Mallon, the Law Society's acting general manager for regulatory, said the Law Society takes its regulatory role "very seriously" and will investigate all complaints. But, he added, there was also the question of whether the current regulatory system is fit for purpose when it comes to these types of investigations.

"This was the focus of the report by the working group chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright which the Law Society Board accepted and is now actively working through," he said.

"In deciding on an appropriate penalty [for the partner], the standards committee took into account the lawyer's acceptance of full responsibility, the actions he has since taken to address the difficulties in his personal life and his behaviour, the views of the two employees involved and the firm's actions.

"It imposed a fine which is over 80 per cent of the maximum fine a standards committee can impose and it ordered him to be censured."

A censure remains on a lawyer's disciplinary record throughout their career and is a serious sanction, Mallon said.

Last year, a confidential online survey of New Zealand lawyers by the Law Society found one in five had been sexually harassed in the workplace.

The same results also showed about one in three female lawyers has been sexually harassed at some time during their career.

 

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