The Criminal Bar Association of NZ will survey all of its members following revelations that at least two lawyers from one of the country’s top law firms left their jobs after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards summer clerks.
The association is also concerned at how many female lawyers quit the profession within a decade.
Earlier this month, Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid confirmed that the firm had received “serious allegations” about events in Wellington more than two years ago.
CBA president Len Andersen said the revelations confirmed anecdotal accounts of bullying and harassment experienced by young lawyers and it is now seeking to understand the extent to which this occurs, with a view to remedial action being put in place.
“CBA is absolutely committed to ensuring lawyers can carry out their professional obligations without being subject to harassment or bullying behaviour,” he said.
The association was also concerned at the number of young lawyers – particularly female – who leave the profession within the first 10 years of practice.
“The first step of understanding the problem is a survey which is being sent to all CBA members to be completed by practitioners working in the criminal law,” Andersen said.
“The results of the survey will determine what future action is required and the results will be published on the CBA website.”
It is understood the allegations at Russell McVeagh involved students in the firm’s summer law-clerk programme.
Newsroom.co.nz reported that two incidents happened at Christmas functions and another at the El Horno Bar in Wellington. At least one complaint was made to police about a man’s behaviour at El Horno.
McDiarmid said the law firm immediately conducted a full internal investigation at the time and initiated a formal process.
“Those who were the subject of the allegations left the firm following the investigation,” he said.
Victoria University vice chancellor Grant Guilford said it had supported the young women and was focused on ensuring a safe environment for future students in the workplace.
“We have worked closely with Russell McVeagh and other firms to ensure that young women or any young person is well-protected,” he said.
Guilford said workplace harassment was a major issue for New Zealand society.
“It is quite difficult for a young woman in this situation to consider undertaking a complaint with the police and going through the court system. It’s as little as 3 per cent of our sexual assault cases actually do end up going through the police and into the courts.
“I think if anything that comes of this of any good, it’s that we face up to these things in our workplaces and make sure there’s a zero tolerance of it across the country.”