A whistleblowing lawyer who wrote a confronting essay on sexual harassment in the industry says she is underwhelmed by the New Zealand Law Society's response to her call to action.

Olivia Wensley wrote on Linked In this week about the experiences — including a law firm partner introducing her to an associate by saying "I've just hired a nice little piece of ass for you".

Since Tuesday more than 100 people have contacted her to share their own experiences of sexual and sometimes physical harassment, most in law, but also in the accounting, health and banking sectors, Wensley said.

Lawyer Olivia Wensley is continuing to call for change after this week sharing her story of sexual harassment in the legal sector. Photo / Supplied
Lawyer Olivia Wensley is continuing to call for change after this week sharing her story of sexual harassment in the legal sector. Photo / Supplied

"We're talking about it, finally."

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The Society also this week announced a working group focusing on sexual harassment reporting will be established and measures, including the development of an online portal and dedicated free helpline, for confidential reporting of harassment concerns.

A national survey of lawyers on workplace issues, including harassment, is also planned.

Why are women leaving law?

The increased focus on sexual harassment follows accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour in New Zealand law firms, most notably Russell McVeagh, and comes six months after the #metoo social movement exploded into the public consciousness, starting with accusations of workplace sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry and later across other industries with powerful figures.

Wensley said the society had used some ideas she suggested in her essay, but also said they weren't doing enough.

Lawyers were legally required to report other lawyers to the society for misconduct, but none had, she said.

"We need more education about what constitutes misconduct ... lawyers don't know it's mandatory [to report], either that or they are just covering up."

She also wanted all those quitting law to be asked why — the society cancels departing lawyers' practising certificates.

"There's a huge attrition rate of young lawyers, females. Eight out of 10 of my [female] friends that qualified have left ... you don't go to law school for a long time, work and then leave for no reason."

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Allegations gathered from surveys could guide random audits of firms' human resources files, as they did with trust accounts.

Wensley also challenged corporate clients to flex their financial muscle and ditch firms where harassment was condoned.

New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck accepts the current system for identifying misconduct, such as sexual harassment, in the legal industry isn't working. Photo / Supplied-
New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck accepts the current system for identifying misconduct, such as sexual harassment, in the legal industry isn't working. Photo / Supplied-

Law society president Kathryn Beck said conversations on tackling harassment started before Christmas after legal publications LawTalk ran an anonymous letter alleging sexual harassment.

Before then the focus was on the society's voluntary Gender Equality Charter, set up to stem the flow of women out of the industry. Tools to prevent and tackle harassment were to follow.

This year's allegations accelerated plans, Beck — herself allegedly sexually harassed by a law firm partner as a new lawyer in the 1990s — said.

The portal, helpline and survey were planned "within weeks".

"[But] sitting under all this is the basic issue of gender inequity. We really need to get stuck into that otherwise all this stuff, it will make it better, but it won't really address the issue.

"We want to ... look at the underlying cause, which is power imbalance ... then at what we can do around education, support, resources, prevention and then to look at the response when there is misconduct."

She acknowledged the existing system for reporting misconduct wasn't working. This would be looked at by the working group, as would whether HR files could be audited and exiting lawyers could be surveyed.

'There's still a sense people will go back to the choices you made'

A former Rudd, Watts and Stone summer clerk has also spoken about her experience of sexual harassment.

Marianne Elliott alleged she was the target of "inappropriate and persistent sexual advances", which then turned physical, from a firm partner in 1994.

Then 22, she later spoke to the man in the most "non-confrontational, not offensive to a person who is powerful" way she could and he apologised. She didn't tell the firm, now called MinterEllisonRuddWatts.

"Because I'd been drinking ... I think women are still aware that if they raise a complaint about that, and not only women ... there's still a sense that people will go back to the choices you made."

"The other thing is this incredible power imbalance — one person is partner, the other person is still at law school but hoping to get a job at the firm."

She hopes other women now secure in their careers will come forward.

"We need lots of people talking about it so the heat doesn't land too much on one particular woman."

Now 45 and with staff of her own, she was stunned by others' alleged actions.
"It's interesting to now be on this side of that and look back and realise 'how could that possibly have not been clear to people with power?'"

Marianne Elliott says she was sexually harassed as a summer law clerk. Photo / Rick Zwaan
Marianne Elliott says she was sexually harassed as a summer law clerk. Photo / Rick Zwaan

She also witnessed sexual advances on other clerks by the firm's associates, senior associates and partners at boozy functions, she said.

Some alleged interactions were consensual, but she now questioned "to what extent a person would feel genuinely free" to say no given the power imbalance.

"I was married, I was a Brethren, so my motivation to draw a line in the sand was probably higher ... I think it's just really difficult to say no in that situation."

In a statement, MinterEllisonRuddWatts said they were concerned to hear of Elliott's experience and "glad she felt able to rebuff the advance".

"We do regret any distress she felt, and offer our sincere apologies to her."

They don't have a record of any similar complaints, but records don't go back to 1994.

The firm had long-standing and recently-reviewed policies, including on harassment and staff drinks, they said.

Other safeguards included access to an independent hotline for summer clerks and a staff module on anti-bullying and anti-harassment.