Ex-Russell McVeagh partner's sexual misconduct penalty reserved

Imogen Wells
Source: 1News

The former Russell McVeagh partner has had his penalty decision reserved by the Lawyers & Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal on Thursday.

Russell McVeagh.

The former partner at top law firm Russell McVeagh found guilty of sexual misconduct earlier this year by the tribunal.

It has the ability to permanently remove a lawyer from practice, suspend them from practice, order they cannot run their own firm, or fine them up to $30,000 if they are found to be guilty of misconduct.

James Gardner-Hopkins’ actions made headlines in 2017 when a group of female summer clerks alleged they’d been sexually harassed at a 2015 work function.

The revelations, originally published by media outlet Newsroom, sparked New Zealand’s #MeToo movement at the time and resulted in protests and saw universities cut ties with the firm.

They also raised serious questions about the culture not only at Russell McVeagh, but all of New Zealand’s law firms and top level businesses.

Gardner-Hopkins, whose name suppression lifted earlier this year, left Russell McVeagh in 2016 after another series of events involving a different intern.

The allegations made against him were laid bare by four women in a New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal hearing earlier this year and ranged from putting a hand around one of their waists and on their pubic area, to touching breasts and kissing them on the face while on the dance floor at the Wellington office’s Christmas party.

The complainants were summer clerks at the time, working a period over 2015 and 2016, and all gave their testimonies behind a screen so they did not have to look at the man they were accusing of sexual misconduct.

One witness, who was not a complainant but used to work with Gardner-Hopkins and was called upon to give a wider character background, said she “never felt very safe” because of the attitude he and other male members of the team had towards women.

At the tribunal hearing in May, Gardner-Hopkins said he did not recall some of the events detailed by the complainants but claims he had no sexual or predatory intent behind his actions, that he was highly intoxicated on the night of the event, and was trying to have a good time with everyone by dancing.

However at Thursday’s virtual penalty hearing, he accepted the women’s versions of actions and that his overall behaviour at work in 2015 was unacceptable.

“I totally accept that the culture of the team that I led and that I fostered was inappropriate… that is something that I have worked on. And it is not a way that I behave now.”

Toward the end of Thursday’s virtual penalty hearing, James Gardner-Hopkins’ turned around to face one of the complainants who was at the hearing in person, and apologised directly to her, before looking directly at the camera and apologising to any of the other complainant who may have been watching.

In May this year the tribunal found him guilty of sexual misconduct, with all of the six separate incidents meeting “the test of being regarded as disgraceful or dishonourable”.

It noted the behaviour was a black mark on the profession and emphasised the power imbalance for young lawyers.

"It's a mark of shame for the profession that its most junior members have shouldered a burden of bringing these events to notice."

The law tribunal said it was “a basic behaviour” expected from lawyers to be respectful and not abuse their position of authority.

“There is no place for objectification of women or indeed any person, by those in the profession of law.”

It said his conduct was not "unconnected with the provision of regulated services" as there was nothing disconnecting the Christmas function from work and therefore fell within professional boundaries.

Gardner-Hopkins talked about the financial hardships he’s been facing and that he’d been working to pay off debts.

Dale La Hood, who is representing the Law Society's national standards committee, revealed Gardner-Hopkins’ minimum monthly spend on basics is $12,000.

“I’m not quite sure not being able to maintain your lifestyle is the same as financial ruin,” La Hood said.

Facing questions from tribunal members, he said there was nothing similar between the man he is today and the man he was in 2015.

“It is six years ago. In that six-year period, almost everything in my life has changed… and yes some of [the changes] were a direct consequence of the 2015 events, but my drive is different. I want still to be a fantastic lawyer. I love the profession. I love just helping people,” he said.

When asked how he would handle the 2015 Christmas party today, he said he would simply ask the intern how their day went and the interaction would be completely different.

He told the tribunal his drinking habits had changed drastically and that he’d been seeing a therapist.

“[in 2015] I would have looked down on someone who needed therapy. I would’ve been quite unkind about it. I have a whole new level of understanding, compassion, [and] kindness. Also now giving myself permission to acknowledge my shortcomings, my failures, rather than pretending they don’t exist. It’s that combination of things that I believe mean that this will not happen again, could not happen again.”

However there were questions from tribunal members about how often he had been attending therapy, as it seemed that some had been cancelled or very widely spaced out.

Gardner-Hopkins said he’d been unable to attend three sessions and that the time between appointments was decided between himself and the psychologist in terms of what was or wasn’t needed.

La Hood told the tribunal the details around Gardner-Hopkins’ therapy sessions were concerning and suggest there wasn’t a true level of remorse.

“The only reengagement [of therapy] was for his own personal crisis management,” he said, rather than to address the behaviours in 2015.

“He has apologised for the way [the complainants] feel but has never apologised…for the full extent of his actions and the impact they had on those women,” La Hood said, adding an apology for both their actions and their impact would be something you’d expect from someone who had “learnt their lessons”.

It was after La Hood’s comments that Gardner-Hopkins apologised directly to one of the women involved, who was at the hearing in person.

Gardner-Hopkins’ lawyer asked the tribunal to give the disgraced former partner a lead-in period should he be disbarred or handed a suspension.

The tribunal did not indicate how long it would reserve its penalty decision.