At least two staff members from one of New Zealand’s top law firms have left after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards young, female law-clerk students.
And Victoria University, which confirmed allegations involving several of its students, said it understood police continued to have an “open file” on the matter.
Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid confirmed last night that the firm had received “serious allegations” about events in Wellington more than two years ago.
It is understood the allegations involved students in the firm’s summer law-clerk programme.
“Where allegations were made, we immediately conducted a full internal investigation at the time and initiated a formal process. Those who were the subject of the allegations left the firm following the investigation,” McDiarmid said.
He said he would not discuss specific details for privacy reasons.
Newsroom.co.nz, which revealed the allegations yesterday, said two incidents happened at Christmas functions and another at the El Horno Bar in Wellington.
At least one complaint was made to police about a man’s behaviour at El Horno.
Police said this morning they could not confirm whether or not certain organisations or individuals were under investigation.
Victoria University Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford understood a young law clerk student who was part of a summer programme made an allegation of sexual assault.
Guilford said he was aware of several other young women who also allegedly experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour at the time.
At the time the university believed it was a police matter so it focused on supporting the young women and ensuring a safe environment for future workplace students.
“Our feeling was that we couldn’t be involved in the complaint because it was a police matter other than supporting our students that had been impacted [and] helping to advocate for them.”
He also said he could not give specific details because of privacy issues.
However, the law firm had taken steps to address the matter and he understood police continued to have open files.
“You can imagine how you feel just being appointed in your first job, all of sudden to find you’re assaulted. Creates a completely new sense of ‘that’s why they wanted to hire me; it wasn’t for my ability or because I was doing well’.”
Guilford said the university had since worked with Russell McVeagh and others to make major changes to the clerkship programme.
“We have worked closely with Russell McVeagh and other firms to ensure that young women or any young person is well-protected.”
This included better induction, help hotlines for those exposed to bad behaviour and reinforced HR policies.
McDiarmid said the firm had “zero tolerance” to bad behaviour.
“[We] 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.
“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.”
McDiarmid said Russell McVeagh has always taken employees’ concerns “extremely seriously”.
“We are committed to addressing any issues of harassment at Russell McVeagh, and in our profession generally, by making it known that any such behaviour is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“In addition, we have been and are working closely with many of the other major law firms and the universities to develop a ‘transition to work’ programme and have appointed an independent person, to provide additional support to our staff and graduates within the profession as they commence their careers from university.”
Guilford said the university had been in contact with the women at the time.
“I think this is a major issue for New Zealand society. It is quite difficult for a young woman in this situation to consider undertaking a complaint with the police and going through the court system. It’s as little as 3 per cent of our sexual assault cases actually do end up going through the police and into the courts.
“I think if anything that comes of this of any good, it’s that we face up to these things in our workplaces and make sure there’s a zero tolerance of it across the country.
“I know from my interactions with the survivors of those incidents how catastrophic this can be for a young person’s confidence. I don’t think that is understood well by our society.”