Otago law student among harassed

A University of Otago law student is among those said to have been targeted by inappropriate sexual behaviour at top New Zealand law firm Russell McVeagh.

University of Otago faculty of law dean Prof Mark Henaghan says more students might have stayed silent, fearing their careers could be harmed if they spoke up.

''There may well be others, because people just don't come forward.

''If you're working in a big powerful law firm and you're just a young female student, it's a bit overwhelming, really,'' he said.

His comments came as Russell McVeagh announced plans for an external review of what it said were ''completely unacceptable'' incidents of sexual harassment in 2015-16.

Two older lawyers were said to be involved in the incidents, and five female clerks had declined full-time positions at the firm at the end of their internships, RNZ reported.

Prof Henaghan told the Otago Daily Times he was aware of one female law student from Otago who had come forward in relation to the allegations.

The student was at the firm's Wellington office as part of its summer law-clerk programme, at the time sexually inappropriate behaviour was said to have occurred.

Prof Henaghan said he did not know the identity of the student or if she remained a student at Otago.

He and university vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne had written to the firm after learning of the allegations to offer support to the student if she wanted it, he said.

The company had passed on the offer to the student ''in good faith'', but she had not responded to the offer, he said.

''I think, to be fair to the firm, they've obviously been very upset and I know the HR people have worked overtime in the firm with this particular young woman ... to really support her through it.

''They did put a lot of resources into supporting her.''

Partners from the firm had visited every law faculty in the country to brief them on the situation after the allegations emerged, and to apologise, Prof Henaghan said.

He was ''very upset'' by the details, and, together with Prof Hayne, had a ''fairly stern'' conversation with the firm's partners during their visit to Dunedin.

''I think we were very concerned about the students themselves, in terms of what short and long-term harm it can do to them, but also we're very, very concerned about future students.

''You don't want to put people in any of those situations. It was very upsetting.''

The company had spelled out its plans to ensure the problems were addressed, and prevented from happening again, and seemed to be doing ''everything they possibly could to try to turn that around'', he said.

''Our main issue we were deeply concerned about was that if these things happen, it obviously relates back to a kind of a culture that exists that enables these things. That was the main issue we were concerned about.

''In this situation I think they're doing everything they can to turn it around, but it hasn't come out perhaps as well as they'd like.''

But the firm might not be the only one with questions to answer, he suggested.

''If it happens in one it could happen in others.

''I think it's given them all a bit of a shockwave, really, in terms of not wanting these things to ever happen, at all, and that the clerks are safe.''

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

Comments

The culture has been 'busted'. In that regard, it is the brave who are powerful, not the law firm.