Disgraced lawyer held multiple leadership roles in years after Christmas party incidents

Author
Katie Harris, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 25 Jun 2021, 3:53PM

Disgraced lawyer held multiple leadership roles in years after Christmas party incidents

Author
Katie Harris, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 25 Jun 2021, 3:53PM

A former Russell McVeagh partner who touched several interns inappropriately was able lead an industry council and was a councillor on another in the years after the incidents.

And this month the lawyer, James Gardner Hopkins, represented protest group Save Kennedy Point in a high-profile environmental appeal in the High Court at Auckland.

Yesterday Gardner-Hopkins was found guilty of six charges of misconduct for incidents which occurred in Summer 2015, and while we can only report his name now, in the law field many already knew about allegations against him.

Most of the charges related to inappropriate sexual conduct at two Christmas functions in 2015 when the lawyer was based in Wellington.

However despite accusations back then, Gardner-Hopkins was appointed president of Resource for Management Law Association (RMLA) in 2017 and resigned in 2018.

Gardner-Hopkins was also a New Zealand Institute of Building (NZIOB) councillor and according to its website he left in 2019.

On a CV linked on his website, he claimed to be the president of the Central Chapter of NZIOB, however he does not list which year this was.

NZIOB chief executive Malcolm Fleming said they became aware of allegations against Gardner-Hopkins in mid-2018, which was halfway through his two-year term on the Council.

"Once we became aware that James was the ex-Russell McVeagh Partner, I met with him on two occasions to discuss the matter, followed by a third meeting that included the NZIOB President."

In brief, he said Gardner-Hopkins denied the allegations of misconduct that had been made against him, however he advised them of an incident which is now suppressed.

"We agreed that James would not seek re-election to the NZIOB Council. Additionally, we agreed that he would not attend NZIOB evening functions or any Institute events that involved alcohol."

Fleming said they found it hard to reconcile the portrait presented in the news media with the person they had on the NZIOB Council.

"The NZIOB would like to acknowledge the courage that the Russell McVeagh Summer Interns have demonstrated since initially raising their concerns with Russell McVeagh."

The RMLA has been approached for comment.

A man who had been heavily involved in a professional context with Gardner-Hopkins told the Herald it wasn't surprising that he managed to get to these positions.

He said in the years that followed people "totally" knew about the allegations, but back then they all "tolerated" it, as it was "just part of it".

"There are going to be literally tens of lawyers, if not more, who are going to be sh**ing bricks about their own behaviour."

His view was that no one knew the case would really come to this, and he thinks Gardner-Hopkins didn't believe there would be a result where his name would come out.

"I think his reputation will be sullied to the point where it won't be particularly easy for him to get work, because people will shy away from that, it's just not the right look. So he'll find it quite difficult."

While Gardner-Hopkins has continued his successful legal career, his offending has had a profound impact on the victims and their careers.

In its concluding observations, the Tribunal noted that of the group affected by the man's actions, two have left the country - and one specifically as a result of the events.

"At least one has left the profession; another changed her area of practice so as to avoid contact with Mr Gardner-Hopkins (especially after he was elected President of the Resource Management Lawyers Association); another felt her career had been adversely affected."

One woman said during the hearing that the thought of seeing him makes her physically ill.

"I find him scary. I feel he [may] have a grudge against us for tarnishing his reputation and I'm scared of retaliation from him."

She said her life had changed irrevocably and said when she got a scholarship on the firm she felt like her life was on the right track, but after the incidents she had to change firms and practice areas.

"Wellington is a small place and everyone knows or had an idea of what happened. When I tell people I summer clerked at Russell McVeagh in Wellington, they do the maths in their head and go quiet."

The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal yesterday found
Gardner-Hopkins' conduct in all the charges relating to six separate incidents met the test of being regarded as "disgraceful or dishonourable".

In its concluding observations, the Tribunal noted that of the group affected by the man's actions, two have left the country - and one specifically as a result of the events.

"At least one has left the profession; another changed her area of practice so as to avoid contact with Mr Gardner-Hopkins (especially after he was elected President of the Resource Management Lawyers Association); another felt her career had been adversely
affected."

They said it was a "mark of shame" on the profession that its most junior members have
shouldered the burden of bringing these events to notice, but it reflects only positively
on them.

The penalty for his misconduct is yet to be determined.