Russell McVeagh review: Crude sexual culture, bullying

Frances Cook,
Publish Date
Thu, 5 Jul 2018, 10:06am

Russell McVeagh review: Crude sexual culture, bullying

Frances Cook,
Publish Date
Thu, 5 Jul 2018, 10:06am

A 'work hard, play hard' culture of excessive drinking is being blamed for alleged incidents of sexually harassment at law firm Russell McVeagh.

Dame Margaret Bazley has just released an 89-page report after interviewing 250 people to get to the bottom of allegations including that five summer clerks were sexually harassed over the summer of 2015/16.

The report found that in that time period, junior lawyers and other young staff were encouraged to "drink to excess", in a culture that had instances of crude, drunken, and sexually inappropriate behaviour.

Bazley noted there were failings in the firm's governance and policies, including no code of conduct, which she said contributed to poor management of the incidents.

"I found that there was no one in charge in the Wellington office, the team within which the incidents occurred was out of control, and what was happening in that team was not noticed by the partners or brought to the attention of the board."

Bazley said the firm began to change the culture after the 2015/16 summer, and that she could not find any recent incidents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour.

But as part of her broader review of the firm, she found pockets of bullying, excessive work hours for junior lawyers, and fear among both lawyers and partners about the consequences of speaking out.

She also noted that more work was needed to address underlying sexism, with too many female lawyers leaving the firm rather than progressing to partnership.

"I consider any form of discrimination against women to be a serious issue because it inhibits the change that is needed to achieve the complete elimination of sexual harassment and sexual assault."

The report issued six pages of bullet-pointed recommendations for change - including sweeping changes to address bullying, the sexual harassment allegations, and company policies.

It recommends issuing an apology for the incidents over the summer of 2015/16, and bringing in external expertise to develop a sexual harassment and sexual assault policy.

Bazley's review also identifies a need to protect junior staff from bullying, recommending that a standalone anti-bullying policy is developed, and a confidential way of reporting bullying is put in place.

Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty said the board and partners accepted all of the findings, and had already started the process to implement all the recommendations.

He admitted they made "serious mistakes" in how the 2015/16 allegations were handled.

"The board and partners of Russell McVeagh are deeply sorry for the impact that the incidents of 2015/16 have had on the young women involved and our people.

"We have apologised to the young women for the hurt and damage we caused. We recognise that they have shown great courage and applaud them for this.

"Their actions will result in meaningful change."

Crotty said the firm had believed it had a "speak out" culture, but it was now clear that belief was "misguided".

He said that people felt unable to speak out, and even when some did, best practices weren't followed.

"It is deeply concerning to the board and partners that Dame Margaret's review has identified various degrees of bullying in pockets of our organisation and our people being required to work excessive hours.

"We are dismayed that we did not know many of the things affecting our people and we should have known.

"Despite the circumstances that led to the review being commissioned we are grateful that the terms of reference of the review gave sufficient scope so that such critical issues were able to be brought to our attention."

Russell McVeagh has pledged to give a public update on their transformational change programme in the first quarter of 2019.

Recommendations to Russell McVeagh include
• A full apology and acknowledgement that its handling of the incidents over summer 2015/16 was poor.
• That the firm enlists external expertise to develop a sexual harassment and sexual assault policy, and reviews the capability of the HR team to deal with sensitive sexual complaints.
• That tight control be maintained over the availability of alcohol.
• That the board chair makes it clear there is zero tolerance of bullying, including developing a standalone anti-bullying policy.
• That the firm puts in place a confidential way of reporting bullying.
• That the firm acts swiftly in relation to any reports of bullying, by giving the staff member opportunity to change, and if change isn't made, taking disciplinary action.
• That partners model family-friendly practices and leave the office at a reasonable hour each evening, and ensure that their staff do the same, staying late only in exceptional circumstances.
• That the firm engages an independent expert to advise on policies including sexual harassment and sexual assault, anti-bullying, alcohol use, expected behaviours at social functions, and code of conduct.
• That senior and junior women sit down together to explore what can be changed to allow women to maintain their career progression towards partnership as they raise a family.

Why the review was ordered

Dame Margaret Bazley was appointed to lead the external review, looking at incidents which occurred through 2015/16.

Alleged incidents include male employees taking part in sexual acts with female intern students who were part of the summer law-clerk programme. There were accusations of a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour at the firm.

Russell McVeagh staff will only be formally briefed on the results after the press conference.

The law firm pledged at the outset to give Bazley full access to any material she needed, as well as any staff who wished to participate.

The review will cover sexual harassment claims over the summer of 2015/16, the firm's responses to those claims, as well as any other claims of improper conduct.

Bazley was asked to consider the overall culture of the firm, as well as the firm's standards, systems, and policies for the management of staff.

Former staff and summer clerks were invited to take part.

When the review was announced in March this year, Russell McVeagh chairman Malcolm Crotty said the women who had been subjected to any form of sexual harassment would want to be assured that the review would be thorough.

At least two staff members left after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards young, female law-clerk students.

Bazley previously headed the Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct in 2007, was a member of the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance, and reviewed the Legal Aid system in 2009.

She also reviewed the Wellington Rugby Football Union process and protocols for player recruitment, and the management and monitoring of player behaviour, in 2016.

All six of New Zealand's law schools have cut ties with Russell McVeagh in the wake of a series of accusations that a culture of sexual harassment was rife within the firm.

In the wake of allegations against the law firm being made public, up to 17 formal complaints of a sexual nature were lodged with the Law Society.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck told Newsroom the 17 allegations had been lodged, with at least one believed to be from a former summer intern.

A spokesman told the Herald they could not give out information relating to a particular complaint or say whether or not they had received any.

"The legislation sets certain parameters and we're obliged to work within that,'' he said.

"That related specifically to confirming whether or not particular complaints have been received.''