Zoë Lawton is a legal researcher by trade. But after a sexual harassment scandal rocked one of New Zealand’s top law firms, she’s become one of the nation’s leading voices on the #MeToo movement.
Her blog, which she launched in late February, cast a spotlight on alleged sexual misconduct in New Zealand’s legal industry, prompting the legal community there to take action to stem harassment and discrimination in the profession.
The idea for the blog came about after women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by senior male partners at Russell McVeagh, one of the largest law firms in New Zealand, while they were law clerks at the firm in 2015 and 2016. The firm commissioned an external review, and last week an 89-page report found “a work hard, play hard culture that involved excessive drinking and in some instances crude, drunken, and sexually inappropriate behavior” at the firm.
The story was all anyone could talk about when the allegations emerged in February, said Lawton, a senior researcher for the Chief Victims Advisor in New Zealand.
“No one had ever gone to the media and said, ‘I worked at this firm and I was sexually harassed,’” Lawton said.
Despite the media attention the episode received, Lawton worried that the underlying issues would get swept under the rug.
“I thought this definitely isn’t a one-off, and I didn’t want the story to blow over and become yesterday’s news,” Lawton said. “I knew that would happen if there wasn’t something else that kept the conversation going,”
So she created the #MeToo Blog where legal professionals and law students in New Zealand could share accounts of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination on a safe and anonymous platform.
Within 24-hours of the launch on Feb. 28, people began contacting her. “It was just an avalanche of stories after that,” she said.
Over the next month, 213 people posted accounts of sexual harassment on the blog.
But privately, Lawton said she received over 500 emails from people who wanted to share their stories but were too afraid to go public or were hamstrung by nondisclosure agreements.
Women and men recounted stories of office jokes that crossed the line into sexual harassment, inappropriate touching and, in some extreme cases, rapes that allegedly occurred in the workplace.
“The blog only tells part of the story,” Lawton said.
In April, Lawton closed the blog to submissions and met with the New Zealand Law Society, the country’s legal regulatory body, to discuss the findings. Soon after, the Law Society launched a sexual harassment survey of lawyers across the island nation.
“I’m really proud of that outcome of the blog,” Lawton said. “When I set out to do it, the main purpose was to demonstrate to the Law Society what an issue [it was], the extent of it and hopefully prompt them into action, and it did.”
The survey, published late last month, found that nearly one in five lawyers in New Zealand had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with 31 percent of female attorneys and 5 percent of male attorneys reporting that they had been harassed in the workplace. It also found that of those who were harassed, only 12 percent formally reported or made a complaint about the harassment.
But all of this came at a cost for Lawton. Law firms blocked her email address and instructed their staff not to associate with her. She began receiving anonymous threats to her career and reputation. Senior lawyers at some law firms had also gone so far as to retain defamation lawyers ready to pounce should she include any identifying information on the blog, she said.
“It just felt really scary at the time,” Lawton said. “There’s so much fear in the legal community about the consequences on your career if you speak out especially I think in New Zealand because it’s a small legal industry,” Lawton said.
But for all the trouble, Lawton said she feels that there has been a huge shift. She said by making this information public, people are now becoming more confident in reporting instances of discrimination or sexual harassment.
Lawton is now working on various initiatives to keep the momentum going. Her main point of focus now is developing a New Zealand version of the sexual harassment reporting tool created in the United States called Callisto.
Victims anonymously report accounts of sexual harassment or assault and the names of the alleged perpetrators. Victims can then choose to be notified if the same name is reported by any other contributor. This puts more power in the hands of the victims and builds on the idea that there is strength in numbers, Lawton said.
“Women and men who have experienced sexual harassment [are] so much more likely to speak about it with their friends and family if they know that other people are in the same situation,” she said.
And while she acknowledges that there hasn’t yet been a sea change in the legal industry, Lawson said the progress has been real.
“We still have a huge way to go, because it’s such a huge issue that’s been around for such a long time, [but] there definitely is a more positive mood,” she said.