Auckland University of Technology has withdrawn an invitation for law firm Russell McVeagh to hold a recruitment session with its students next Tuesday because of “improper conduct” and concerns over the firm’s culture.

Professor Charles Rickett, the dean of AUT’s School of Law, emailed hundreds of students to say the presentation had been cancelled because of ongoing investigations into Russell McVeagh employees’ past sexual misconduct and issues with the firm’s working environment.

“The School of Law wants to support our students to transition from university to safe and respectful working environments. We are reviewing ways in which [we] can continue to work with the profession to enable this to occur.”

While AUT wanted to give its students the chance to meet a diverse range of potential legal employers it needed to be confident there would be “a supportive working environment that will allow you to lead successful and satisfying professional lives”.

The pushback against Russell McVeagh follows a revelation at the weekend by an AUT associate professor Khylee Quince that two 19 year-old Māori women students of the University of Auckland were involved with Russell McVeagh male staff in binge drinking and sexual acts in a boardroom and toilet at the firm after a seminar more than a decade ago.The firm told her then the sex was consensual and the drinking up to the women, as young adults. The students were affected by the incidents, Quince said, for years afterwards.

Students at two Victoria University law student bodies have cut sponsorship ties with the firm after concerns over summer clerks being sexually harassed and assaulted by Russell McVeagh male staff two years ago in Wellington. Two men were allowed to leave the firm and there have been ongoing complaints to Newsroom and other media about how the women concerned and their supporters were treated afterwards. The Law Society was not told of the misconduct, despite a legal and professional requirement that those who become aware of such behaviour must report it, for eight or nine months, when it learned from one of the women rather than Russell McVeagh. A police file on the reported sexual assault remains open.

The firm has announced an ‘external’ review of its actions over that summer clerk scandal, and of its culture and processes for dealing with misconduct. AUT is understood to have told Russell McVeagh it will wait for the results of that review before acting further. The law firm has indicated an appointment to head the review is due this week.

Other legal groups, including the NZ Law Students Association, the Otago University Māori Law Students and the Women’s Law Journal are understood to be reviewing sponsorship arrangements with Russell McVeagh. 

In its statement responding to Khylee Quince’s revelations, Russell McVeagh acknowledged that “over the past 20 years there have been a limited number of allegations of poor behaviour involving consensual sexual events including on our premises”.

It said when allegations of any sort had been made it had taken action. “If proven, we have taken action appropriate to the severity of the misconduct. In some cases this has resulted in termination of employment or a partner departing, regardless of their seniority.”

This was its first public admission that allegations over that period had reached the level of partner in the firm.

But it suggested some issues being raised on social media and elsewhere could be “rumours”.  “There will no doubt be rumours or online chat about other supposed events in the past that either weren’t known about at the time by management or were alleged and not proven or were not the subject of formal complaints.

“We are unable to comment on events that may or may not have happened in such circumstances.

“We reiterate our commitment to having a culture of zero tolerance of any sexual harassment and have committed to an external review of the serious events of 2015/16 to assist with enabling us to better achieve this.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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