The trickle of stories about sexual harassment in the legal profession has become a flood in the last few weeks. It started with the news that two staff members had left one of the country's biggest law firms, Russell McVeagh, after complaints from female interns about sexually inappropriate behaviour. This prompted a wave of similar accusations from other women, typified by former litigation lawyer Olivia Wensley who said the behaviour in many firms was like an American fraternity house.

Russell McVeagh has since admitted that staff members had sex with young female students from Auckland University on the boardroom table after a late night drinking session about 15 years ago, but neither the law firm nor the university formally investigated because the sex was consensual. This week Otago students cancelled their annual second-year law camp after revelations that it included nude performances and jelly wrestling for female students. Auckland law students have reported similar experiences.

The outpouring of complaints now after so many years probably stems from the global impact of #MeToo, the global social media campaign against workplace sexual harassment inspired by the story of disgraced Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. It is hard to exaggerate the movement's impact. Women (and some men) around the world are complaining about sexual misconduct for the first time, because they feel at last that they will be taken seriously. The movement has spread well beyond its roots in the entertainment industry, forcing many prominent US businessmen to resign after complaints against them. New Zealand law firms are now feeling the same winds of change.

Unfortunately for those women brave enough to speak up, the unwritten rules of the game don't seem to have altered, in the legal profession or anywhere else. Sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace can at worst be an open secret, publicly deplored but privately accepted. It depends on an imbalance of power, usually between young women and older men, which prevents most women from coming forward for fear of wrecking their careers. For young women who make complaints against senior, experienced male lawyers, the stakes are especially high. It is not surprising that few victims and no alleged aggressors in these law firms have been named.


The sheer volume of anonymous allegations has also raised fears that innocent men's reputations will be ruined by "witch hunts". Leaving aside the bad history - witches were hunted, not the other way around - the odds remain firmly in favour of the accused men, because of the power imbalance in most cases. But there is always a risk in encouraging people to accuse others without rigorous safeguards, which will test responsible media organisations as this story grows. Many cases may not fit traditional journalistic or legal criteria, as there are often no outright victims or villains. And many of the women involved do not want headlines or legal action anyway. They just want the harrassment to stop.