Russell McVeagh has been blasted by the country's law school deans over its handling of sexual assault allegations and accused of putting clients above student victims and
misleading university authorities.

University of Canterbury law dean Ursula Cheer wrote to the firm on February 20, on behalf of the country's university law schools, and was sharply critical of "the unacceptable culture tolerated in the firm which allowed vulnerable law students to be exploited".

Letters obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act were exchanged earlier this year in the aftermath of the growing sexual harassment scandal in the firm and the legal sector becoming public knowledge.

The letters show university authorities believed they had been misled during a year-long charm offensive by the law firm run in the aftermath of sexual assault allegations that occurred at the Wellington office of Russell McVeagh during the 2015-16 summer law clerkship.

Advertisement

Cheer said briefings from the firm to her and other law school heads had outlined how the alleged perpetrators had been cut from the firm and steps taken "to ensure such a thing can never happen again" - but these reassurances seemed hollow in light of recent news reports.

"We have realised it appears what we were told was not accurate," the law dean said.

Professor Ursula Cheer, Dean of Law at Canterbury University. Picture / Supplied
Professor Ursula Cheer, Dean of Law at Canterbury University. Picture / Supplied

Cheer was highly critical that the man she described as the "main perpetrator" - a senior figure who is understood to have been complained about to Police - was continuing to work with clients for the firm, and that the other solicitor subject to complaints was still employed in the industry after being given a reference by Russell McVeagh.

"The unfortunate and inevitable perception is that the firm has put keeping clients ahead of the students that complained. We look forward to hearing from you as to why we were not kept in the picture."

Russell McVeagh partner Malcolm Crotty replied on February 23 to Cheer's letter, stating the firm was bound by ethical and legal obligations from being fully open about the matter and their response.

Crotty said the partner remained working with clients despite the firm on "legacy matters on which we were ethically obliged to act", and when the solicitor left the firm "full disclosure" was given to his potential new employer who hired him anyway.

"We remain committed to make sure such events can never happen again ... We look forward to receiving the Law School's support as we go forward," Crotty said.

Last night a spokesperson for the firm said they, and all lawyers, were obliged by professional rules of conduct to put clients first.

Emails between partners at Russell McVeagh and four New Zealand Universities also obtained under the Official Information Act show Victoria University first contacted the firm about the sexual assault allegations in October 2016.

Grant Guilford, the Vice Chancellor at Victoria, informed the law firm that a detective would be contacting the firm. He also appears to have told his colleagues at the other universities, who then informed their respective law deans about the matter.

The correspondence showed Cheer was already aware of the matter from another source but not of details. She immediately requested to speak with a senior person at the firm.

Russell McVeagh then quickly arranged to meet with all the universities, in person, around the country, to discuss the allegations and what they planned to do about them.

They also met with student representatives from Victoria University of Wellington Law Students' Society, and the student association president, keen to see what "learnings" there could be for the future.

By the end of 2017 the firm had planned to run a "Workplace Readiness Programme", and put a draft programme out for consultation.

This included sessions on resilience, "strength finding", women in leadership, and an "Alcohol & Me" session run by Lion Breweries at the cost of $50 per head. There were no sessions on safe sex or sexual assault.

While the firm said the full programmed would not be available that summer, Russell McVeagh will be putting all their summer clerks through the "Alcohol and Me" programme and offering similar "transition to work" sessions on a smaller scale internally.

They would also have an "independent person" service - a counsellor the student could talk to confidentially - available to all summer clerks that year.

For the following year, the programme would be offered to a number of other big law firms. The universities and students participated in consultation on the plan, but they seem to have been abandoned.

Cheer, writing to her fellow deans after receiving the February 23 response from Russell McVeagh to her letter, was caustic.

"It appears ethics ruled the day," she said, "to the extent that the client needs were treated as more important than the students."

She was also unsatisfied about Russell McVeagh's openness prior to the story becoming public knowledge. "No explanation as to why we were not fully informed, either."

Her feelings appears to have been widely shared: In the weeks follow the exchange of letters, all six university law schools cut ties with Russell McVeagh - canning debating competitions, interviews and internships for at least the current year.