A former Russell McVeagh law firm partner has been found guilty of six misconduct charges, including touching summer interns inappropriately.
The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal found James Gardner-Hopkins’ conduct in all the charges relating to six separate incidents met the test of being regarded as “disgraceful or dishonourable”.
Most of the charges related to inappropriate sexual conduct at two Christmas functions in 2015 when the lawyer was based in Wellington.
The decision was released today and NZ Law Society president Tiani Epati said: “I want to acknowledge the courage of the victims and witnesses who came forward and bravely gave evidence for the National Standards Committee.”
Epati said it was an “important case for the legal profession”.
“The decision by the tribunal sets a clear benchmark for the standards expected of lawyers, not only within an office environment but when attending work functions and events.”
Gardner-Hopkins no longer works for Russell McVeagh.
In 2017, more than two years after the incidents, Gardner-Hopkins was appointed president of the Resource for Management Practitioners (RMLA).
Five of the charges related to his behaviour at the law firm’s Christmas party.
“At that party, five incidents of drunken behaviour occurred with junior staff members involving tactile dancing and other physical contact.”
The sixth charge related to his behaviour at another firm function held at his home.
During the tribunal hearing multiple former summer clerks testified that Gardner-Hopkins had touched them inappropriately, with one woman describing that she felt like a “piece of meat”.
Another woman said she felt “extremely” distressed and “cried all weekend” after he had touched her without consent and allegedly touched her friend’s breast in front of her.
When she discovered other women claimed they too had experienced misconduct she said it was “terrifying” because it made it feel like “it’s inescapable”.
One victim claimed it felt like he touched her breast “forever”.
At the hearing Gardner-Hopkins said he had no intention of “creeping”, and he said it was “devastating” to learn how his actions affected the clerks.
One former worker told the hearing that supporting the interns who accused him of sexual misconduct felt like a “full-time job”.
She said even after complaints had been escalated he remained working and the women were “petrified” of running into him and were “traumatised”.
The woman said she was told by various people in the firm that she was a “troublemaker” and that she was making a “mountain out of a molehill”.
“Gaslighting is probably the best way to describe it.”
The incident where the practitioner touched an intern’s breast in front of others led to charge five, and was “arguably the most serious” according to the ruling.
“The fact that the practitioner was so disinhibited that he touched Ms B intimately in front of other people may speak to his level of intoxication.
“The accounts of the witnesses also agree that the practitioner suggested going home with Ms B at least twice, separately from his suggestion that they go to town together.”
It also referred to the firm’s culture of “work hard play hard”, and in particular about the culture of the EPNR team led by Gardner-Hopkins.
One young lawyer who worked in his team said her perception was that there was a misogynistic culture in that team and certainly female employees did not last long.
The tribunal said in its decision that the profession expected that “those who work with lawyers are respected and safe”.
“A basic behaviour expected of lawyers towards those they work with is that they are respectful and do not abuse their position of power. There is no place for objectification of women or indeed any person, by those in the profession of law.”
The tribunal said senior lawyers needed to model appropriate behaviour: “In this case Mr Gardner-Hopkins should have been aware of the apparent power imbalance between a partner and junior staff members at a social function.”
In their decision, the tribunal said Gardner-Hopkins had been “in denial”, and since the allegations were first put to him, his attempts at reconstruction had been influenced by a belief that he could not have acted in the manner described.
“We are satisfied that Mr Gardner-Hopkins’ explanations for the alleged conduct are unreliable. There is no doubt that he was severely intoxicated.”
Evidence from the complainants was “compelling”, the ruling said, which noted the complainants all had a clear recollection of the acts that they alleged Gardner-Hopkins engaged that night
The penalty for his misconduct is yet to be determined.