On 30 March 2021, NBR reported that former Auckland Buddle Findlay partner, Patrick Mulligan, allegedly made “sexual comments and touched another person inappropriately” at a team Christmas party in 2020. He resigned from the partnership on 31 March 2021 and has moved to the independent bar.
It is understood that the same partner also made inappropriate comments to a student from the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in 2018.
First and foremost, ALWU is concerned for the people involved in both incidents and for the employees at Buddle Findlay. Since becoming aware of the allegations, ALWU has attempted to engage with Buddle Findlay in relation to the matter, and has so far managed to secure one meeting with a member of Buddle Findlay’s Board and a member of its human resources team. ALWU has also exchanged various emails and phone calls with the firm.
Based on the meeting and feedback from members, ALWU has the following concerns about the firm’s approach.
First, ALWU received feedback from members who are extremely disappointed in the lack of transparency with which Buddle Findlay has communicated the matter to its staff, particularly to the wider staff who were not at the Christmas party and therefore not included in the firm's investigation process. A firm-wide email sent on 15 February 2021 informed staff simply that Mulligan “will be retiring from the partnership” and expressed “best wishes for his future success”. ALWU also understands from members that comments have been made by senior figures at the firm to the effect that staff (particularly those who work outside Buddle Findlay's Auckland office) have no right to be informed, and that they would not have been told had the matter not been reported in news media. ALWU believes that all staff deserve to know how their firm handles such allegations so they can have confidence that matters are handled appropriately and will be in the future.
Second, ALWU is concerned that this appears not to be the first incident involving Mulligan, and that the firm was already aware of a pattern of behaviour. ALWU was told that “policies” were put in place following the AUT incident, but it remains unclear what these policies were, and in any case they were evidently not enough to prevent further harm.
Third, ALWU understands that Buddle Findlay undertook an internal investigation. ALWU’s view is that while an internal investigation may be quicker, it will generally be insufficient where the nature of the allegations is serious, and especially where the person concerned is a partner or senior member of the firm. There is an inherent conflict of interest in such an investigation being carried out by the colleagues of the person concerned, in terms of an interest in both profit and mitigating damage to the firm’s reputation. This conflict goes to the integrity of the investigation process, regardless of the outcome of the investigation itself.
Finally, ALWU has received feedback from members that various partners at Buddle Findlay have made comments minimising the alleged misconduct, for example by saying the conduct was “not as bad as Russell McVeagh”. It should go without saying that all sexual misconduct is serious and unacceptable (and this is so regardless of the individual's intention or level of intoxication). The fact that some misconduct is not as serious as others by comparison does not diminish its gravity. Such comparison is unhelpful and perpetuates a dangerous impression that some forms of misconduct might be tolerable.
Despite this, there have been some positives from Buddle Findlay's handling of the incident. ALWU has been glad to learn that the alleged misconduct has been reported to the New Zealand Law Society. We are also glad to learn that Buddle Findlay has taken steps to support its staff. Notably, Buddle Findlay told ALWU that it has offered external counselling support to those involved, as well as the right to independent legal advice. The firm has also held a number of in-person staff meetings before and after the NBR article was published to give staff the opportunity to air their concerns, and has recently set up a mechanism to enable staff to ask questions or give feedback anonymously. According to the Bazley Report into the Russell McVeagh incidents of 2015, none of these forms of support were offered to the staff involved in those incidents, so ALWU is pleased there has been some progress made since 2018. ALWU has also received feedback from some staff who were at the Christmas party and witnessed the inappropriate behaviour that they felt included in the firm's investigation and were happy with how the firm handled the incident.
It is clear that while there has been some progress since Russell McVeagh, the law profession still has much to learn when it comes to handling allegations of sexual misconduct. ALWU is in the process of putting together a best practice document, and hopes all firms will adopt it to support their staff. ALWU will also continue to try to meet with the firm to discuss how employers can better support their staff and protect their safety.
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This post was edited on 20 April 2021 to:
delete reference to the location of the 2018 AUT incident and the capacity in which the partner made the alleged comments, pending further inquiry;
clarify that ALWU has also exchanged emails and phone calls with Buddle Findlay, in addition to the one meeting that took place; and
clarify that Buddle Findlay met with its staff both before and after the NBR article was published.