Lawyer questions law firms’ motivation for changes after #MeToo – Radio New Zealand

A senior woman lawyer says the industry is changing because of the Me Too movement but not for the right reasons, in the first part of a RNZ series Katie Scotcher looks at how #MeToo gained momentum in New Zealand.

While 60 percent of law graduates are women, less than 40 percent become partners, according to the Law Society.

Photo: 123rf

Law firms had their #MeToo moment when interns at the law firm Russell McVeagh complained about being sexually assaulted by senior lawyers – an investigation found a culture of excessive drinking – and that the complaints had been poorly managed.

The lawyer, who RNZ has agreed not to name, has found law firms are starting to move away from a “work hard, play hard” culture but she questions what is motivating the change.

“The firms are now a lot more scared of that kind of thing happening because if it is made public they can see what the ramifications are and that it can have a real impact on the business.

“Law firms are financial beasts and we’re only going to see real genuine change if there’s a financial implication for the firm when these things come out. And that’s only really going to happen if clients stand up and say this is unacceptable,” she said.

An intern at a major law firm in Wellington, who RNZ agreed not to name, said she chose not to apply for a job as a clerk at Russell McVeagh and the misconduct allegations were on her mind when she applied to other firms.

“Apart from just it being a large law firm, I think they appear to invest in their people and that was something that really appealed to me. How they view even the juniors as investments,” she said.

Another intern, who RNZ has also agreed not to name, is about to start her first job at a law firm. She said a lot has changed in the industry.

“Our eyes have opened and we’re going into the industry aware of these things,” she said.

After the Russell McVeagh revelations, all six of the country’s law schools cut active ties with the firm.

In August, deans met the company to determine the future of their relationship.

“We were not yet prepared to reengage in terms of allowing them to actively recruit on campus.

“We still needed to see how their changes have played out at the firm and particularly to have a look at the experience of this year’s summer clerks going through as to what they were seeing happening in the firm and whether they could see a tangible difference in culture and policies and practices,” Otago University law dean Jessica Palmer said.

Ms Palmer and the other deans will meet Russell McVeagh again in the new year to assess whether the firm has done enough to restore their confidence.

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Law Society president Kathryn Beck said changes are starting to take effect. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Before the scandal, the Law Society which polices the industry had not received any complaints of sexual misconduct.

After being criticised for not doing enough to stop sexual harassment, this year, it has received 25 complaints.

And a survey commissioned by the society found nearly a third of women lawyers have been sexually harassed at work.

Its president, Kathryn Beck, said the profession had learned a lot and the society has listened.

“So this year we put in place a lot of things to try and make it better than it was before. We could have done better, we know that, and we’ve started,” Ms Beck said.

Changes are starting to take effect, Ms Beck said.

It has put in place an independent working group to consider improvements to enable better reporting of harassment. Its findings are expected to be released today.