Two of the summer clerks allegedly assaulted by a former Russell McVeagh partner have shared the impact of their experiences at the first day of a disciplinary hearing

A former summer clerk at Russell McVeagh has spoken about feeling like “a field mouse being hunted by a tiger” as she avoided the advances of a former partner at the law firm now facing disciplinary action over allegations against him.

The former partner is before the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal regarding seven charges of “misconduct or (alternatively) unsatisfactory conduct”.

The first five charges relate to an out-of-office Christmas function which took place in Wellington, while one involves events at a “team” Christmas party held at the lawyer’s home. The final, alternative charge to the first six is that his cumulative actions amount to misconduct.

Delivering the opening statement on Monday, Tim Bain, representing the national standards committee which referred the complaints to the tribunal, said the case against the practitioner was essentially one of power, and power imbalances.

“Being a lawyer naturally means being a person in a position of power…but the committee says what’s particularly important here is being a lawyer who is entitled under the act to practice on one’s own account means having even more power, and in particular means having power over junior members of the profession.”

Bain said there was a “stark imbalance of power” between a partner and a junior lawyer, and “a gulf” between a partner and an aspiring lawyer – “particularly…when one is a partner in a prestigious law firm that spends thousands of dollars a year marketing itself as the employer of choice for all students, and when the other is an aspiring law student, who is undertaking what is essentially a three-month-long interview for their dream job”.

Representing the Law Society’s national standards committee, Tim Bain said there was a “gulf” in terms of the power imbalance between a law firm partner and a summer clerk. Photo: TVNZ.

The former partner had abused that power imbalance when he essentially sexually assaulted four summer clerks at the firm’s annual Christmas office party, and again abused his power – “if not actively exploited it” – when he took advantage of another summer clerk during a separate Christmas function at his house.

At the Christmas office party, the former partner allegedly touched four summer clerks inappropriately either at the bar or on the dance floor, on their waists, breasts or buttocks.

He then tried to get into a taxi with two of the women despite repeated insistences that he was not welcome to join them.

The charge relating to the party at the former partner’s house involved him kissing and intimately touching a fifth woman while they were both partially clothed in a sauna.

Appearing before the tribunal, the first complainant to testify said she had never had a conversation with the former partner before their encounter at the office party, although she was aware there was a drink which had been named after him.

He approached her while she was getting a drink at the bar and took her aside to a secluded area, putting his arm around her and suggesting they have a drink together.

“He just kept going with his hand so that it was petitioned between my hip and my pubic bone – I felt it was over the line,” the first complainant said.

She rejected a suggestion from the man’s lawyer, Julian Long, that his initial approach to her at the bar had been done “in a welcoming and polite and friendly way”, saying: “To me, the way that he touched me felt like it was an immediate invasion.”

She felt “trapped” by the former partner then realised he was drunk. He let go of her hip so the pair could scull a drink together, then “nuzzled” into the side of her face with his head, with the woman feeling as if she had to squeeze out of his hold and move away.

At the end of the night, when the complainant and another female summer clerk (the second complainant) were waiting for a taxi to go home, the former partner came up to them and ‘traced’ wine stains on the other woman’s top before touching her breast.

He then tried to get into their taxi, trying to go home with the second complainant, before the first woman slammed the car door closed on him.

“I remember feeling both glad and disappointed that I didn’t break his fingers in the door.”

The first complainant said she had had nightmares about being raped by the former partner following the incident, and had been seeing a psychologist to deal with social anxiety.

She was very upset when she learned others had gone through similar experiences that night, with the man doing it in a way that had gone undetected.

“I felt like I was a field mouse being hunted by a tiger.”

She rejected a suggestion from the man’s lawyer, Julian Long, that his initial approach to her at the bar had been done “in a welcoming and polite and friendly way”, saying: “To me, the way that he touched me felt like it was an immediate invasion.”

‘It felt like forever in my mind’

Taking the witness stand to offer her own evidence, the second complainant said the former partner had come up to her while she was dancing in a group and put his arm around her waist, pulling her somewhat away.

“He had his hands on my waist and moved them upwards and downwards – I think he was trying to touch my breast.”

Later in the night, as the woman was waiting for a taxi, the man put his fingers on her breast while ostensibly tracing out a wine stain on her white top.

“It felt like forever in my mind, but I’d say four or five seconds,” she said of how long the physical touching lasted.

He then followed her to a taxi, asking “Are you coming home with me?” before making his rebuffed attempt to enter the vehicle. “The whole way home, I cried. I felt so ashamed of myself.”

She had felt intimidated by the former partner, and remained wary of older male colleagues as a result, rarely socialising with workmates aside from the occasional drink.

“I seriously considered not becoming a lawyer, because I thought, if this is what the profession is like, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

“When I tell people I summer clerked at Russell McVeagh in Wellington, they do the maths in their head and go quiet.”

The woman had still been forced to change firms and practice areas as a result of the incident, but still found it coming up on occasion. 

“When I tell people I summer clerked at Russell McVeagh in Wellington, they do the maths in their head and go quiet.”

Cross-examining the second complainant, Long asked whether the man’s behaviour on the dance floor had simply been the result of a lack of self-awareness about his physical proximity to people, coupled with his reputation as a socialiser keen for others to have a good time.

But the woman said she had a clear sense at the time that the behaviour was not okay, a feeling confirmed by what she subsequently learned about the former partner’s behaviour towards other summer clerks.

In 2018, Newsroom revealed a group of summer law clerks in Wellington had been subjected to sexual assault and harassment during their time at the law firm two summers earlier.

In the wake of the investigation, all six of the country’s university law faculties cut ties with Russell McVeagh while it investigated the claims, and hundreds of university students marched to the firm’s Wellington offices to protest sexual harassment in the workplace.

A damning review into the law firm’s handling of the allegations, carried out by Dame Margaret Bazley at Russell McVeagh’s request, described a “work hard, play hard culture” that involved sexually inappropriate behaviour.

The disciplinary tribunal hearing will continue through the week.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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