The former Russell McVeagh partner accused of misconduct has denied deliberately groping summer clerks at a Christmas office party. Photo: Jacob Lerner

The man accused of sexually assaulting Russell McVeagh summer clerks has spoken about his problems with alcohol and the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture within the firm – but denied deliberately groping the women

The former Russell McVeagh partner accused of misconduct has apologised to the female summer clerks who allege he groped them at a Christmas party – but denied his actions were deliberate.

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 his behaviour towards four summer clerks at an out-of-office Christmas function which took place in Wellington, while one involves consensual events with a fifth summer clerk (not testifying to the tribunal) at a “team” Christmas party held at the lawyer’s home.

Starting his testimony to the tribunal, the partner said he was devastated by how his actions had affected the clerks at the firm and “simply had no idea” of how he had impacted them.

“They, the clerks, deserve my unreserved apologies. I apologise unreservedly to them.”

He “absolutely” denied deliberately groping any of the summer clerks, however, saying: “I was not trying to be creepy, I’m not a groper. I certainly believe that if I had done that, on a crowded dance floor, surrounded by colleagues and even more senior partners, somebody would have noticed and taken me out.”

The partner recalled putting his arm around the shoulder or waist of the first complainant, but said it was meant to be neither “intimate or intimidating” but a friendly gesture after he had called out to her and gently brought her to the bar. He remembered tracing a red wine stain on the top of the second complainant’s t-shirt at the end of the night, but was certain he had “no intention of creeping on her”.

“Perhaps it was the cold water but at the time, I had a moment of clarity and realised the stupidity of what I was doing. I said to [the woman] something like, ‘We can’t be doing this, we shouldn’t be doing this’.”

Responding to the third complainant’s claim that he had caressed her bottom on the dance floor after approaching her from behind, the man said he did not recall dancing with anyone in that manner aside from conga lines, but may have put his hand on her waist while dancing from the side. He had no memory of kissing the fourth complainant on the cheek and did not believe that was something he would have done as he was “not generally a kissy person”.

The partner also denied asking the second complainant if she was coming home with him, suggesting the words may have been “Are you coming out with me?” or “Come to The Horn with me” – the latter referring to an alternative name for El Horno, a popular bar on Courtenay Place. 

Regarding the consensual events with a fifth summer clerk at his house, the man said the team Christmas party intentionally began without alcohol through a team-building exercise at the Adrenaline Forest obstacle course.

But later in the evening at his house, after the clerk made “heavy pours” of whisky for those present, she moved towards him in the sauna and leaned in to kiss him.

The pair then moved out of the sauna and to a shower, when he then stopped the encounter.

“Perhaps it was the cold water but at the time, I had a moment of clarity and realised the stupidity of what I was doing. I said to [the woman] something like, ‘We can’t be doing this, we shouldn’t be doing this’.”

When the then-Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid rang him the following day to ask what had happened, following an HR complaint from a colleague who had witnessed the kiss, he denied anything had happened – a lie that eventually led to his resignation.

‘Dancers for entertainment and dwarves for waitstaff’

The partner said his departure was devastating and painful, but it had been the right decision for him.

“I’d been with Russell McVeagh since I was a clerk myself: much of my identity, both as a lawyer and as a person, was wrapped up in the firm. Separating myself from it meant I was able to get a real perspective on who I am, and also who I have become.”

Growing up, the man said he felt socially awkward and had no real sense of fitting in anywhere, a feeling which extended to his time at law school.

He took up a summer clerkship at Russell McVeagh’s Auckland office, where he got a taste of the firm’s ‘work hard, play hard’ culture as partners routinely put their credit cards behind the bar with no drinks limit.

“The first firm Christmas party that I went to was like something out of a movie…there were dancers for entertainment and dwarves for waitstaff.”

Staff worked long hours under stressful conditions, then socialised to bond as a team and “blow off steam”.

As a young partner with a reputation for being social, he was strongly encouraged by the other partners to take current or potential clients, influential people and possible recruits out on the town.

By 2014, his drinking had become an unhealthy habit and he was relying on alcohol to reduce anxiety. “I felt I had everything under control but the cracks were starting to show.”

He had cut back on his drinking significantly since leaving Russell McVeagh, and worked with a psychologist to address underlying anxiety issues.

Julian Long, representing the partner, said while the Law Society had tightened its conduct rules since the wider Russell McVeagh allegations were made public, those did not apply to his actions at the time. Photo: TVNZ.

Delivering his opening address for the partner, Julian Long said the tribunal would have to make some factual determinations about the events which had allegedly happened at the office Christmas party.

“For some, perhaps the differences in the evidence might not be particularly stark, but there will be significant evidential differences, I suspect, in relation to intention or perceived intentions, and resolution of those conflicts, of course, will have a big impact on the disciplinary consequences that should follow.”

Long said his client accepted he was drunk and became drunker through the evening, acting “in an oafish and drunken, but he says, jovial manner”.

While that was irresponsible, he denied deliberately groping or sexually harassing the four clerks, saying while he may have touched them it was not with the sexual motives which had been attributed to him.

In relation to the charge of kissing and touching a fifth summer clerk during a separate party at his house, the man admitted to the contact but not that he acted “in a particularly exploitative or abusive way” – particularly given it had been initiated by her and terminated by him.

It could be the case that the standards committee failed to establish his actions at the house were grounds for discipline, Long said, citing a similar case against a British lawyer last year where a misconduct finding against him was overturned on appeal.

While the Law Society had tightened its conduct rules in the wake of the Russell McVeagh scandal to encompass a wider range of inappropriate behaviour, those did not apply to the man’s actions at the time and there was a higher misconduct standard to be met as a result.

Following Long’s statement, a physiotherapist specialising in hand injuries offered evidence about a historical injury to the tendons in the man’s left hand which had led to a “significant loss of sensory function”.

His index finger, middle finger and half of his ring finger were significantly affected, with a degree of sensation only to identify things that could potentially harm him, such as a knife cut or a cigarette burn.

However, under cross-examination, the physiotherapist said the partner’s grip strength was essentially the same in both hands, while there was some sensation in the hand as a whole and nothing would prevent him from reaching his arm out and putting it around someone.

“The males in the team acted as if they were in the set of Mad Men, and I would say they were absolute dogs.”

Earlier in the day, the standards committee called its final witnesses in the case, including a former female lawyer at Russell McVeagh who had worked with the partner.

The woman said she had a “hideous” time during her employment with the firm, with a number of inappropriate comments made about women and significant drinking outside of work hours.

“The males in the team acted as if they were in the set of Mad Men, and I would say they were absolute dogs.”

At one point she found out about an email that had been sent to a number of male lawyers with a private social media picture of, and commentary of a sexual nature about, another female lawyer at the firm.

On another occasion, a male lawyer (not the partner) stroked her feet, looked towards her skirt and “said he wouldn’t mind being a gynaecologist”, the woman said.

When she took part in an interview with Russell McVeagh after allegations about the partner and another man came to light, the notes taken by the firm presented her “as broken, hysterical and angry”.

“I feel like they saw us as dramatic. I felt we were ostracised.”

The woman said she had turned into “quite a cold person” to protect herself, and eventually gave up her career in law because of what had happened at Russell McVeagh.

‘Toxic masculinity’

A separate female lawyer at Russell McVeagh, who had acted as a support person to the summer clerks, said she believed the partner’s team had a “misogynistic culture” which was widely known within the office.

“The whole office understood and knew what the team culture there was…toxic masculinity.”

After a number of summer clerks confided in her about the alleged assaults at the Christmas office party, the lawyer called an Auckland HR representative to ask if they could fly to Wellington that day.

However, the partner was allowed to keep working in the office even after the complaints were escalated, and it did not seem as if the allegations were being taken seriously.

“I was told by various people at the firm that I was a troublemaker and that I was making a mountain out of a molehill with everything that had happened…it was sort of like gaslighting is probably the best way to describe it.”

The partner will finish giving evidence and be cross-examined on Thursday, with the closing arguments for each side expected to take place on Friday.

Where to get help:

National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00

Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or ​www.safetotalk.n​z

Women’s Refuge​ (For women and children) – 0800 733 843.

Shine​ (For men and women) – free call 0508-744-633 between 9am and 11pm.

1737, Need to talk?​ Free call or text 1737 any time for mental health support from a trained counsellor

What’s Up​ – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline​ – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

Youthline​ – 0800 376 633, free text 234, email, or find online chat and other support options ​here​.

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

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

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