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SocietyFebruary 24, 2018

Russell McVeagh and the limits of the law

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Revelations of alleged sexual harassment by a former partner at Russell McVeagh underscore the unique privilege of the legal profession. “Abusers don’t need to tear through the law because their very relationship with the law protects them,” writes Danyl Mclauchlan.

A lawyer at a party told me. I couldn’t remember where he worked so I yelled over the noise, “Aren’t you at Russell McVeagh?” and he screwed up his face and shouted back, “I wouldn’t work there,” then said something about the firm so defamatory I still can’t repeat it. He registered my confusion and told me the story.

It’s the same story that broke last week, on Newsroom. If you searched a media database for Russell McVeagh before then the results celebrated a company that was not only successful – law firm of the year in 2017, acting in numerous high profile cases and commercial transactions – but was also deeply committed to social justice: a commitment to a gender equity engagement policy in December of 2017; a highly commended award for diversity and inclusion at at gala dinner in August of 2017; a commitment to “championing change” and diversity reporting in May of 2017; shortlisted as a finalist in the YWCA Equal Pay Awards in October of 2016; rainbow tick certification in June of 2016, thus “ensuring a safe and welcoming workplace for employees of diverse gender identity and sexual orientation”.

But keep going back through the months and the firm’s press releases become more commercial, the commitment to social justice less profound. The demarcation, if you know what to look for, is a handful of coyly written columns in the autumn of 2016, prompted by the now infamous events of the summer preceding it.

Like most big firms, the lawyer at the party explained to me over the music, Russell McVeagh has a summer intern program. Law students compete to work there as a first step in their legal careers. And, some of the partners and senior solicitors at Russell McVeagh have regarded the female summer interns as perks of their position. Droit de seigneur. (“A smorgasbord to feast upon”, was how employment lawyer Stephanie Dyhrberg put it to Radio New Zealand).

Applicants for internships provide photos of themselves as part of the process and these photos are, or at least were, passed around and appraised by some. Attendance at work drinks, staff parties, weekend trips away, and client events were all regular features of the internships.

What happened at Russell McVeagh has been – partly – exposed in excellent reporting by Melanie Reid and Sasha Borissenko at Newsroom: that a number of women who interned there over the summer of 2015 and 2016 laid complaints with the firm’s human resources department. That their universities and the police allege they were subject to harassment – there’s at least one allegation of sexual assault by a solicitor and further allegations of sexual harassment by a partner. That there had been an internal investigation, the details of which remain unknown, but which resulted in the partner – who had been the subject of previous, ominously similar complaints – leaving quietly and starting his own practice, and that the solicitor was given a reference and found work at another firm, and as recently as late last year received a major industry accolade. That some interns had been required to sign non-disclosure agreements, a claim the firm denied emphatically in a Radio New Zealand interview. That the wrathful universities had demanded explanations from the firm’s managing partners. That Russell McVeagh had been ferociously rebranding ever since, and that the former partner still did casework for the firm and enjoyed a senior and exalted position in the industry.

Almost every lawyer or legal academic I talked to over the past few months – not only in Wellington but also Dunedin and Auckland – had heard some version of the story, with minor variations: there was talk of incidents at a Christmas party at a bar; allegations of an assault; an all-male intake for the firm during the subsequent years’ summer intern programme. (Russell McVeagh had not responded to a request for comment as this story went live).

“It’s hard to over-emphasise the power imbalance between a partner at a firm and a student intern,” another lawyer explained to me when I asked around about the story. “Partners are up there with the wealthiest, most influential people in the country. They know judges. They know politicians, senior police.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “They sit on the boards of our largest companies. They have cultural connections; they donate to arts charities. They know newspaper editors, publishers. They can be very smart, and very aggressive and very ruthless. It’s hard to stand up to them – no matter who you are – because you’re picking a fight with someone who can not only destroy your career but litigate you into bankruptcy.” If you’re wondering why there are so few attributed quotes, either in the Newsroom stories or this piece, that’s why.

The women who interned at Russell McVeagh did stand up for themselves (“High performing law students aren’t made of candy floss,” the same lawyer said with a touch of pride). But the criminal justice system is famously dysfunctional when it comes to allegations of harassment and sexual assault, even in the best of circumstances, and this was a case involving men whose power and influence within that system make them effectively untouchable. A police file was opened but charges were never laid. The law firm learned of the allegations after being told by one of the women involved. Two years on, the firm has announced what it calls an “external review”. 

I couldn’t get any of the interns who worked at Russell McVeagh that summer to talk to me directly, either on or off the record. I was told by their peers and friends that they’re afraid of reputational damage, and they feel compelled to protect the privacy of the woman who was the victim of the most serious assault. Some of them also feel there will be serious legal and financial consequences if they speak to the media.

“We did not ask anyone to sign anything in relation to these circumstances,” senior partner Pip Greenwood told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan, responding to allegations that the interns had been gagged by non-disclosure agreements. She added that all staff who work at the firm are bound by a confidentiality clause regarding client information, and speculated that this may be the source of all the NDA rumours. I know of one intern that didn’t sign anything, others who insist that they are gagged but won’t say how.

“If any good at all comes of any of this,” Law Society president Kathryn Beck told me, “it will be the culture change in response to it. We need to be a profession where people feel empowered, but also a profession in which those in power call out wrongdoing when they see it. We can’t be pushing all the obligations to speak out onto the victims.”

I called Kathryn Beck because some of the lawyers I spoke to were especially enraged about the Law Society’s apparent inaction. “I can’t comment on any complaints,” she said, before explaining the society’s process for handling complaints and misconduct. It is, as you’d expect of a Law Society, process-driven, legalistic and contestable. There’s a standards committee which can refer sanctions to a full hearing by an independent panel presided over by a retired District Court judge.

“You can’t just kick people out then?’”

“Ha. No.”

There was also anger about Russell McVeagh’s ongoing casework with the former partner at the center of the assault allegations. The firm explained that they were just following Law Society guidelines regarding residual casework and that female staff were prohibited from working on those accounts. “That surprises me,” Beck said. When a client contracts a firm to do some work, she explained, a partner will be named to handle it. If the partner leaves there’s a negotiation with the client. If the firm doesn’t have the in-house expertise to continue with the casework then the former partner might handle it. “It’s very client driven,’ she added.

Many first-year law lecturers tell their students a story from Plutarch’s Life of Solon. Solon was an Athenian statesman who introduced a written legal code to the city. A visitor to Athens mocked him and told him that his laws were like spiders’ webs: “they would hold the weak and delicate who might be caught in their meshes, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.” Discuss in tutorial.

Over the last six months we’ve seen the #MeToo movement emerge from the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Dozens of high profile men, primarily in entertainment, politics and journalism, have been exposed as serial workplace predators. Critics of the movement point out that its targets are subjected to trial by media – accusations are made, jobs are lost and reputations are destroyed, all with no due process. Which is true but ignores the point: that the targets of #MeToo are primarily figures that tear through traditional forms of legal accountability, something that’s especially easy to do in cases of workplace harassment because the webs are so flimsy.

The Russell McVeagh revelations highlight another limitation of naming and shaming: abusers who can’t be named, and don’t need to tear through the law because their very relationship with the law protects them. Non disclosure agreements, injunctions, defamation law and the cost of litigation are all routine features of the legal system that can be repurposed to protect and conceal abusers. Spider webs aren’t any kind of barrier to a spider.

The police file is still open. No charges have been laid. Neither the solicitor or former partner at the centre of the allegations have been named by media, and possibly never will be. The woman who was assaulted has, I’m told, left Wellington, does not want to discuss what happened, and is trying to build a new life outside the law.

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