Sasha Borissenko: Summarising the Russell McVeagh partner trial


It’s been almost two weeks since a former Russell McVeagh partner was the subject of a five-day hearing before a Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal at the Wellington District Court.

Five complainants presented accounts of alleged sexual misconduct at a Russell McVeagh Christmas party in December 2015. The man said he was horrified that his actions could have had such an impact on the lives of five young law students, and that he was the responsible adult who should have ensured they felt safe and not threatened in any way.

“I respect them for speaking up, and unreservedly apologise on my part [for the] trauma they have experienced. They have nothing to fear from me. I bear them no ill-will. I accept the position I am now in is my own responsibility and I will accept the consequences…”

The man chose not to plead guilty to charges relating to professional misconduct, saying he had “no intention of creeping on them”. Instead he said one of the complainants confused his request to go to “the Horn” (a colloquial term used to describe Wellington venue El Horno) for “are you coming home with me?”.

Then there was the issue of his hand – to which he had no sensory feeling as a result of an injury. He said he wouldn’t intentionally harass women with a hand he “derived no pleasure from”.

While the legal industry waits for the Tribunal decision, here’s a summary – direct quotes only – of the hearing that may change the legal industry. It must be noted too, that my editorial choice of quotes has been informed by my experience working on the Russell McVeagh investigation for a great portion of 2018.

On the impact of the alleged offending

“The thought of seeing [the man] makes me physically ill. I find him scary. I feel he [may] have a grudge against us for tarnishing his reputation and I’m scared of retaliation from him. I don’t think that he would recognise me if he saw me in the street, but I would definitely recognise him,” complainant x said.

“It is not an exaggeration that this event has changed my life irrevocably. In terms of my career, I’m frustrated as I had a vision of what my career would look like – work at Russell McVeagh for a few years, gain some awesome skills and training to start my career strongly. I was an incredibly hard working law student and I wanted to work at the best firm. When I got the scholarship, I felt like my life was on the right track. I have now had to change firms and practice areas,” complainant x said.

“I moved to [another city] to get away from the Wellington office of Russell McVeagh and all the people that worked there…Wellington is a small place and everyone knows or had an idea of what happened. When I tell people I summer clerked at Russell McVeagh in Wellington, they do the maths in their head and go quiet. When I come across people that I worked with there in Wellington it is awkward and frustrating. I have lost an entire network of people who cannot separate what happened from the work that I tried to do well at,” complainant x said.

“When I got [to new employment] I felt [in] utter shock at what I experienced. I couldn’t go to meetings with men and I couldn’t get into lifts with men. I had a sense of total dread when a man emailed me despite the emails being friendly and professional. I gave up the law, and my career in the law, because of what happened [at] Russell McVeagh,” said witness 3, a former worker at Russell McVeagh.

On the culture within the team

“I would reject entirely the allegations that there were constant sexual references or that women were sexualised in my team or that we had a misogynistic attitude and culture…I would describe it as a clique,” the man said.

“We had lots of nicknames for people…There was a Fijian guy who had a beard and had long hair and he looked like Jesus except black, we called him ‘Black Jesus’. He called himself Black Jesus. We had an Asian gentleman who was part of our group, we called him ‘Bad China’. He called himself Bad China,” the man said.

“There was possibly a time Charlie Sheen was in the media a lot and there was some quote that he had about drinking tiger’s blood and it helped with his libido, and so sometimes we’d say ‘oh, you know, have you been drinking the tiger’s blood?’ if someone was getting excited about something – not suggesting they were getting sexually excited, but as our equivalent for ‘are you drinking the Kool-Aid?’,” the man said.

“I can see why there might’ve been some impression that it [was sexist but] it wasn’t intended and it certainly wasn’t how [the men in the team] saw it,” the man said.

“So I suppose it was sexual in the sense that they were sexual jokes, so the double entendre is like something that sounds innocuous but it has actually got a hidden meaning, whereas [sexist] would be saying, you know, that person in the team is hot or whatever other terms, so it wasn’t directed at people specifically,” witness 1, a former worker at Russell McVeagh said.

On the women speaking up

“Within the partnership [the man] was charismatic and appeared to have a lot of sway. He had a reputation as a very good lawyer. He was also someone who I have noticed is somewhat confident and may be outspoken. I was conscious that if I was rude to him he would have the opportunity to ruin my career before it had started,” complainant x said.

“I’m a very professional person and I’m very conscious of the importance of maintaining my professional reputation and integrity. It is important to me that people do not view me as a troublemaker or as a person that gets intoxicated at work events. I want to be known for the quality of my work and having a good attitude,” complainant x said.

“We were all so naive and we never had someone more senior or independent advising us of our options until we later engaged a lawyer,” complainant z said.

“I remember thinking maybe this was what the workplace was actually like. At one point I did go to [Human Resources] to raise some of the problems that I was having with the culture. [Their] response was to send me to a counsellor to deal with being in my team. This made me feel as though how I was feeling was my fault and my problem,” witness 3 said.

“Throughout the [internal] investigation process I felt like the patience of those running it ran out in respect to me and the other women involved. I feel like they saw us as dramatic. I felt we were ostracised,” witness 3 said.

On the man's drinking

“[The man] was on notice about drinking. I can distinctly recall a number of discussions with board members pointing out another partner who had left the firm – not that long ago at that stage – because of drinking. That partner chose to leave themselves and I can recall the words that ‘we care about our partners too much to see another one moved out because of alcohol’ and he would need to change his ways,” former Russell McVeagh chief executive Gary McDiarmid said.

“[The man] was dishing out a drink known as the [name of the drink] which was a full glass of bourbon with a splash of coke in it. On this occasion the drink was so strong that I fell unconscious on the train on my way back to my parents’ house….I recall this well because my grandparents were staying with us when this happened and they were very unimpressed,” witness 2, a former worker at Russell McVeagh said.

“I don’t think I suffered from alcoholism in the medical sense, for example I never drank alcohol in the mornings or during office hours, I was able to successfully complete Dry July and Sober October back in 2014,” the man said.

On the man's first experience at Russell McVeagh

“The partners’ management style was very much to throw us in at the deep end with a sink or swim mentality but there were also the bright lights and the glitz and glamour of a large firm, with big entertainment budgets, corporate dinners and functions, and client and firm parties,” the man said.

“Human resources would routinely put their credit cards down at bars and restaurants with no limits on drinks for clerks and staff. The first Christmas party that I went to was like something out of a movie. [There] were dancers for entertainment, and dwarves for wait staff. It could have been [on] a set of a James Bond movie,” the man said.

“I did my first 24 hour shift that summer. Nobody seemed to think that was exceptional. Rather, it was celebrated as a ‘welcome to the factory, you’ve earned your first badge of honour, the all-nighter’. At the time, Russell McVeagh seemed proud of its reputation as ‘The Factory’. There was a weekly or monthly in-house newsletter for staff, called From the Factory Floor,” the man said.

“I would say that the culture at the firm when I started was very similar to the culture when I left. I loved it, and from what I saw growing up in that environment, it looked like everybody else did too,” the man said.

To conclude, the five-day hearing could be summarised as: five women’s accounts of alleged sexual assault, another man’s form of exuberant dancing. Then there are questions around how this could have happened? But more importantly, beyond lip-service, will it happen again?

– Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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