Something went badly wrong with the student law clerk programme at national law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington over a recent summer.

Newsroom has learned of a pattern of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards the female students that saw our leading universities intervene, at least one report made to the police and a later reform of the clerk programme including a ban on alcohol and the launch of a helpline for them to seek support.

The matter went before the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the NZ Law Deans, who oversee the law schools sending graduates to Russell McVeagh and other workplaces.

Victoria University said today its staff were “extremely disappointed that the incidents occurred” but found Russell McVeagh senior staff “genuinely concerned” for the welfare of those involved and determined to ensure the safety of future clerks.

Summer clerking generally involves students competing for highly-contested positions working in a firm. They return to university to complete their final year of studies, having accepted offers from the firm to take full-time roles at the end of the study year.

Some of the clerks in this programme raised concerns of a sexual nature with Russell McVeagh’s human resources team. A university representative met the chief executive of the Law Society to discuss complaining about lawyers’ actions in the affair but was told there was nothing that could be done without a formal complaint to the Society.

Newsroom has not named the clerks or specified the dates of their programme to protect their privacy, or – for now – the identities of the lawyers involved. But in a multi-month investigation, Newsroom has confirmed details from within the law and academia and has documents about the incidents and their ramifications.

It is not unusual within companies and law firms for internal matters to be covered by non-disclosure agreements yet Newsroom is told such confidentiality measures were raised in connection with the summer intern programme.

The complaints from the summer programme are similar to the revelations of harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour which have propelled the global #Metoo movement.

Five women among the 10 clerks on the programme who were offered full-time clerk positions at the end of the summer declined Russell McVeagh’s offer, a highly unusual outcome.

The firm promotes itself as the country’s premier law firm and “New Zealand’s legal employer of choice”.

Newsroom understands two older male lawyers who were the subject of clerk and university concern are now working in different roles, but one has at times continued on Russell McVeagh work in his area of expertise.

It is understood two incidents which provoked appeals for help to those in authority arose from Christmas functions that year.

A third incident was at a Wellington venue, El Horno Bar. A complaint to police about the actions of one man in attendance arose from the El Horno incident.

When the clerks approached the Russell McVeagh human resources department the issues were heard but no resolution was concluded at that meeting.

Eventually the heads of the law schools at Victoria University and Canterbury University became aware of the allegations and further reports of sexual harassment after a student organisation raised concerns later over a public event at Victoria. Armed with statements from the complainants, and in the interests of student safety, the universities took the matter up with Russell McVeagh directly and the firm committed to overhaul the clerk programme and change alcohol-related policies. A helpline was introduced.

“Victoria was not involved in the resolution of the complaints as we ascertained this was a matter being investigated by the Police. We were extremely cautious about not doing anything to compromise this investigation.”

Victoria University Vice-Chancellor Professor Grant Guilford

The sub-culture around working hard and partying hard during legal clerking programmes has been a feature of law firms beyond Russell McVeagh and is well-known in the legal fraternity, often mixing powerful men with young women seeking their first, potential, employment in the law.

Clerks at the Russell McVeagh programme talked about a particular, named, cocktail being ordered for them in the early hours, recalled to Newsroom by someone who once worked at the firm as “a lethal drink” that “I myself fell victim to when I was summer clerking”.

A university official took up the concerns with the Law Society and then-Chief Executive Christine Grice, now a High Court judge, who informed them of the difficulties of taking the matter further without a formal complaint.

Since the events, the Victoria University Law Students’ Society cut sponsorship ties with Russell McVeagh for their Women in Law event and then Ngā Rangahautira (the Māori Law Students Association) rejected a sponsorship offer for Māori Language Week from Russell McVeagh, citing a clash in values with the firm.

The firm, formed in 1863, has 350 partners and staff across its Auckland and Wellington offices and represents all of New Zealand’s retail banks, the country’s largest company and largest listed company among many others on the NZX. Ten of the 36 partners shown on its corporate website are women.

It advertises its summer clerk programme by saying: “As a summer clerk at Russell McVeagh, you will work in at least two practice areas of your choice, have ongoing technical and soft skill training, meet some great people and have all the perks of working at a top tier firm. 

“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. This means that we only recruit as many summer clerks as we need for graduate positions.”

Approached for comment about what happened in Wellington that summer, the firm’s chief executive Gary McDiarmid said there were significant legal issues which he was not able to discuss today.

Russell McVeagh was considering a list of written questions submitted by Newsroom.

In a response to Newsroom‘s questions, the Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University, Professor Grant Guilford said senior staff knew about the complaints, and had since helped Russell McVeagh examine its summer clerking programme.

“[Senior staff] were immediately involved in working closely with senior staff at Russell McVeagh to examine the firm’s procedures around the summer clerking programme in order to provide assurances around the safety of summer clerks working in the firm in the future,” he said.

“Victoria was not involved in the resolution of the complaints as we ascertained this was a matter being investigated by the Police. We were 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.

“This matter was discussed by the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and the New Zealand Law Deans with a focus on ensuring the safety of future summer clerks working at Russell McVeagh and other workplaces that run summer clerkship programmes. These discussions were focused on the safety of future clerks, rather than resolving specific complaints.”

Guilford said Victoria University staff were “extremely disappointed that the incidents occurred”.

“The safety of Victoria’s students is of paramount importance to the University. 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.

“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. We also witnessed genuine concern for the students involved.”

The University of Otago has confirmed it was one of the universities made aware of the allegations, and that it was party to a meeting with the Law Society.

Because of privacy issues, it was unable to discuss any direct dealings with Russell McVeagh.

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