A survivor of alleged harassment at top law firm Russell McVeagh says her experience with a former firm partner left her feeling trapped and preyed upon.
Today a disciplinary hearing for the man who is accused of inappropriate behaviour is underway in the Wellington District Court.
He’s facing several charges of misconduct or unsatisfactory conduct laid by the New Zealand Law Society National Standards Committee.
The committee alleges that the lawyer abused his power as senior partner of a law firm due to the inherent power difference between a partner and an aspiring lawyer.
Lawyer for the standards committee Tim Bain said the clerkship at a major law firm was “essentially a three-month trial for her dream job”.
Five of the charges relate to multiple accounts of alleged sexual assault of staffers at a Christmas party in 2015.
Two other charges relate to an informal celebration at the man’s home where he is accused of inappropriately kissing and touching a clerk in a sauna.
Today, one former clerk spoke about how she felt “extremely” distressed and “cried all weekend” after the man touched her without consent and allegedly touched her friend’s breast in front of her.
The woman claimed he put his hand on her upper thigh by her pubic bone, as well as “nuzzling” her face.
She claimed he then removed his hand from her when he said they should get a drink.
Later in the evening while waiting for a taxi, the woman said she witnessed the man touching her friend’s breast.
“I felt incredibly guilty for many, many months after because I just sat there.”
When she discovered other women claimed they too had experienced misconduct she said it was “terrifying” because it made it feel like “it’s inescapable”.
The alleged victim in the taxi incident told the hearing that it felt like he had touched her breast “forever”.
That woman said he had also asked if she was coming home with him.
She said he was a pretty big guy, therefore intimidating and she felt overwhelmed during the taxi encounter.
“He seemed to seek me out and approach me at various times [that night].”
As well as this, she told the court that she was conscious that he could “ruin” her career before it started.
Some details of the allegations from 2015, which were first reported by media in early 2018, were included in a decision reissued by the New Zealand lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal in March this year.
The tribunal said it was also concerned about “the nuanced differences” in the statements said to have been relayed to the five confidants by the complainant.
“Two of the five confidants do not state precisely what they were told but express their own conclusions about what happened. Evidence such as that could not be admitted on any basis,” the decision reads.
In July 2018, Dame Margaret Bazley released an independent review into Russell McVeagh and made several recommendations for the law firm after allegations surfaced of clerks being sexually harassed over the summer of 2015-16.
She found junior lawyers and staff were encouraged to “drink to excess” during that period, in a “work hard, play hard” culture which had instances of crude and sexually inappropriate behaviour.
Bazley noted failings in the firm’s governance and policies, including no code of conduct, which she said contributed to poor management of the incidents.
A Law Society working group, chaired by Dame Silvia Cartwright, was also established in April 2018 following widespread allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination within the legal profession. It found female lawyers had been subjected to “sexual objectification” for decades.
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