Staff have left a leading Wellington law firm amid allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour from students in a summer law clerk programme.
Victoria University of Wellington vice-chancellor professor Grant Guilford said in October 2016 they received complaints about the behaviour of staff at law firm Russell McVeagh during the 2015-16 summer.
“We are extremely disappointed that the incidents occurred.”
The matter was referred to the Police, he said.
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“Victoria was not involved in the resolution of the complaints as we ascertained this was a matter being investigated by the Police.”
Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid said more than two years ago they received serious allegations related to incidents in Wellington.
“We immediately conducted a full internal investigation at the time and initiated a formal process.”
Those who were the subject of allegations left the firm after the investigation, he said.
“Out of respect for the privacy of the women involved, we have no further details to share.”
As a responsible employer, Russell McVeagh took employees’ concerns “extremely seriously”.
Russell McVeagh were committed to ensuring their workplace was a supportive and safe environment for all staff, and their safety and wellbeing was their priority, McDiarmid said.
They had a “zero tolerance” for bad behaviour.
“We continue to take all possible steps to create a ‘speak out’ culture and as part of this, have made it clear to our staff that there will be no repercussions for speaking out in any circumstance.”
Russell McVeagh were committed to addressing issues of harassment, and in the law profession generally, he said.
“Any such behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
“We have been asked by the women affected to respect their privacy, and therefore, will not be commenting further.”
The firm had been working with other major law firms and universities to develop a “transition to work” programme.
An independent person had been appointed to provide additional support to staff and graduates as they started their law careers, he said.
Russell McVeagh’s website describes the programme as an opportunity for students to work in “New Zealand’s top law firm” alongside some of the best solicitors in the country.
Students could “meet some great people and have all the perks of working at a top tier firm”, the website says.
“Our aim is for each of our summer clerks to have a great summer, get to know our firm, our people and our values and ultimately, to join us as a graduate once they finish university.”
Guilford said the university stepped in to ensure the safety of summer clerks working in the firm in the future, but was not involved in the resolution of the complaints.
“We are extremely cautious about not doing anything to compromise this investigation.
“We were, however, involved in supporting our students and advocating for them to protect their rights in the process, including their right to privacy.”
The reports from the students were discussed by the New Zealand vice-chancellors committee, and the New Zealand Law Deans, he said.
“[They] discussed a focus on ensuring the safety of future summer clerks working at Russell McVeagh.”
Student safety was “of paramount importance” to the university, he said.
“Victoria has a clear pathway for reporting sexual violence and harassment, whether it happens on campus or off campus.
“We provide information about consent on our website and when a disclosure is made, we provide strong support through our health and counselling services and other student support services.”
Guilford said Russell McVeagh’s senior staff showed genuine concern for the students involved.
“We did witness, amongst senior staff at Russell McVeagh, a determination to ensure the safety of future summer clerks at their own workplace and in the wider legal profession.”
Police have been approached for comment.