20 February 2018

Russell McVeagh faces media maelstrom over intern allegations

The New Zealand law firm is at the centre of a media storm over its 2016 intern programme.

A top New Zealand law firm is at the centre of allegations of sexual misconduct towards interns. Russell McVeagh, which acts for some of the countries top companies, is the latest law firm to find itself the subject of press reports on the back of alleged incidents relating to female student law clerks in 2016. Five women were among the 10 clerks on the 2016 programme, all of whom are reported to have turned down full-time job offers with the firm. According to an investigation by Newsroom, one incident resulted in a police investigation being opened, an intervention by New Zealand’s top universities and the launch of a specialist helpline whilst two lawyers exited the law firm. Clerks involved in the summer programme initially complained to Russell McVeagh’s human resources department alleging inappropriate sexual behaviour by a number of senior male lawyers, Newsroom reports. Gary McDiarmid, chief executive of Russell McVeagh, said the senior lawyers involved in the incidents have since left the firm.

Full internal investigation

The firm issued a statement on the incident. 'Over two years ago we received serious allegations related to incidents in Wellington. 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. Out of respect for the privacy of the women involved, we have no further details to share,' it said. 

Unacceptable

The statement added: '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. We have been asked by the women affected to respect their privacy, and therefore, will not be commenting further.'

Law Society statement

The New Zealand Law Society issued a statement last week on the matter. It said that the Law Society was unable to confirm whether or not a complaint has been made related to the allegations of sexual misconduct towards students in a summer law clerk programme at Russell McVeagh. Law Society president Kathryn Beck says while the Law Society will investigate all complaints received, the governing legislation does not allow disclosure of any information about complaints or investigations. 'If a complaint is not received, speaking generally, if sufficient evidence or information is received about the conduct of a lawyer which indicates they may have engaged in misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct, that is a matter which can be referred to a standards committee to decide whether to commence an investigation of its own motion. However, the provisions of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006 mean we are unable to comment on specific matters or cases.'