Concerned comments from women have been the key response to this week’s report of sexual harassment at one of Wellington’s biggest law firms.
Their comments have followed publication of a Newsroom investigation into sexual harassment of women students when they were summer interns at Russell McVeagh in Wellington two years ago.
Russell McVeagh senior partner Pip Greenwood is quoted by the DomPost this morning as saying:
“I felt really strongly and personally, quite affected by the fact that I felt we really let these young women down. They trusted us with their first employment and we completely let them down. I think we didn’t previously have a zero-tolerance policy because we didn’t think that we needed one. We didn’t think this represented our culture and our values and we were obviously wrong about that.” The company had taken steps to ensure staff felt supported and ensure “that we hope this never happens again”.
In an earlier statement, Russell McVeagh had said
We have zero tolerance for bad behaviour and will have no hesitation to act if we are alerted to behaviour that contravenes our values, with robust processes in place to investigate and resolve any issues.
A Wellington city councillor has said that sexual violence is “an epidemic within law firms.” As reported by the New Zealand Herald, newly-elected councillor Fleur Fitzsimons said she believed that what happened at Russell McVeagh in Wellington was “the tip of the iceberg” in the legal profession. The paper quotes her as saying:
“Sexual violence is an epidemic within law firms and needs to stop.”
Cr Fitzsimons told the Herald that law firms, like many other organisations, are now being hold accountable because of campaigns like the #metoo movement and women deciding to speak out. Firms need to be proactive and change their culture to prevent sexual violence occurring, she said.
The issue has made headlines overseas. The Guardian reports that Russell McVeagh acts for 11 of the top 15 companies in New Zealand, including all of the retail banks and its largest listed company.
The Guardian says the allegations have sent shockwaves through the law community in New Zealand, with leading lawyers calling for a specialised sexual harassment officer being appointed by the New Zealand Law Association to manage complaints.
“It is unfortunately well known that law firms can be unpleasant and unsafe work environments,” posted the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association on its Facebook page. “And that claims of sexual harassment are not always addressed in an appropriate way.”
And the president elect of the NZ Bar Association Kate Davenport QC has said in a statement that a safe work environment is a fundamental requirement for all.
A report by Jessica Long in the DomPost quotes Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law partner Steph Dyhrberg, who worked as an employment lawyer at Russell McVeagh from 1990 to 1997 following a summer clerkship, as saying she had worked with some great colleagues and had professional opportunities, but it was a “chauvinist and often demoralising” environment for both men and women to work in. “I was far from alone in that experience.”
Dyhrberg, who is convenor of the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association, says women had to work twice as hard to make half the progress of male colleagues. Asked by the DomPost if she had witnessed or knew people involved in claims of sexual abuse, drug-taking, excessive drinking and attendance at strip shows in the profession, Dyhrberg said: “yes”.
While Russell McVeagh was bearing the brunt of current media attention, she said the profession’s historic sexist and alcohol-fuelled culture is now open for discussion.