How not to take a hands-on approach with interns
A former partner at a top New Zealand firm has been found guilty of inappropriate sexual conduct towards student interns.
James Gardner-Hopkins, who was the head of Environmental Planning and Natural Resources at Russell McVeagh at the time of the incidents, faced charges of misconduct following an investigation by the Law Society.
Gardner-Hopkins told the tribunal that the culture of Russell McVeagh involved a great deal of entertaining and heavy drinking. He said he believed the firm expected him to be the "young, cool partner", and as such, he was involved in the recruitment of law students.
The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal has found the former group leader guilty of six charges of misconduct. Five of the proven charges related to inappropriate touching of student interns at the firm's Christmas party at a bar in 2015.
In one incident, one of the students told the tribunal that Gardner-Hopkins put his arm around her waist, and "kept going with his hand so that it was positioned between (her) hip and (her) pubic bone over the line of her underwear". He nuzzled the side of her face, which made her think he was trying to kiss her, and so she removed herself from him.
Gardner-Hopkins recalled the interaction, but denied any sexual intent or attempting to kiss her, but admitted his recollections were a "bit hazy".
Interns also accused Gardner-Hopkins of fondling them on the dance floor. One intern said the partner had his hands on her waist and touched her breasts in a manner "so it could be masked as dancing". Another intern said he approached her from behind on the dance-floor and "grabbed or caressed her bottom". But Gardner-Hopkins said any such touching would have been accidental.
Another intern said that Gardner-Hopkins put his arm around her in a tight glasp so that she felt engulfed by his "large physical presence." She said he touched her bottom, and kissed her. Gardner-Hopkins said he did not recall the incident, but denied any sexual intention.
In another incident, Gardner-Hopkins traced a red wine stain with his hand on an intern's t-shirt, across to her breast, which led to the intern saying she felt "paralysed" and "shocked" by his conduct. Another student who witnessed it described it as "creepy" and said they had a "strong feeling" that "something was happening, that shouldn't have been happening." Gardner-Hopkins said this was meant as a joke "albeit a bad one."
Gardner-Hopkins was also accused of trying to get into the taxi with the same student, and asked her to a nightclub called "El Horno", known as "The Horn". Other student witnesses said they managed to prevent the lawyer climbing into the taxi with the female student. Gardner-Hopkins denied trying to persuade the student to go to The Horn with him, and claimed there must have been a misunderstanding.
The tribunal lambasted the lawyer for paying "little or no regard" to his professional obligations, and ruled that he had purposely intended to get drunk and neglected to "pay any attention" to the behaviour required at a firm function. The tribunal said that non-consensual touching, connected to the workplace, on someone that a lawyer "has power over" has "always been unacceptable.”
The panel rejected Gardner-Hopkins’ claims that any inappropriate touching at the party had been accidental, and deemed his recollections to be "unreliable.”
The tribunal found the accounts of the students to be compelling and honest. "It is a mark of shame for the profession that its most junior members have shouldered the burden of bringing these events to notice," said the tribunal. It was revealed at the hearing that at least one of the interns had left the profession, one left New Zealand specifically because of the events, one changed her area of practice to avoid contact with Gardner-Hopkins, and one felt her career had been adversely affected.
The tribunal also found Gardner-Hopkins guilty of a sixth charge of misconduct, at another work party that Christmas, which was held at his home. Gardner-Hopkins kissed and had "intimate touching" with an intern in the sauna of his house, while others were present in the sauna and witnessed the actions.
Although the kiss was consensual, the tribunal deemed it to be "disgraceful and dishonourable", due to "the enormous power imbalance" between Gardner-Hopkins and the intern.
The tribunal will decide a penalty at a later date.
After the incidents were reported to the firm, Gardner-Hopkins was told in early 2016 that his position as a partner was no longer tenable, and it was agreed he would resign.
When details about the incidents were publicly reported in 2018, it sparked protests in New Zealand as part of the "Me Too" movement.
"The decision relates to the Law Society's investigation into a former lawyer of our firm and events from the summer of 2015/16, " a spokeswoman for Russell McVeagh told RollOnFriday. "The firm has cooperated with the Law Society's investigation. The firm has acknowledged the events of 2015/16 were unacceptable."
The spokeswoman said that since then, the firm has "focused on making changes, including commissioning and making public a wide-scale review of the firm's culture, policies and practices, and provided subsequent updates".
"As the case remains before the Tribunal for the purpose of penalty, the firm will not be commenting further at this time," the spokeswoman added.
James Gardner-Hopkins told RollOnFriday: "As the Tribunal process has not yet concluded, my advice is that it is not appropriate for me to engage other than through that forum."