Monday, 25 Oct 2021

Buddle Findlay partner Patrick Mulligan resigns amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour

A partner at a major law firm has resigned after an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

And it is not the first time the Auckland partner has been accused of misconduct.

Patrick Herd Mulligan announced his retirement from the partnership of Buddle Findlay in February and left the firm at the end of March. The company told staff he intended to practise as an independent barrister.

An internal investigation was launched after Mulligan allegedly inappropriately touched multiple people, including junior staff members, at the firm Christmas party last year, the Aotearoa Legal Workers Union said.

In a statement Buddle Findlay confirmed concerns were raised about allegedly inappropriate behaviour of a partner at a social event in December.

“The firm acted swiftly to deal with the inappropriate behaviour on the night with the partner leaving the event immediately.

“We acted quickly to investigate the situation and bring the matter to a conclusion to the satisfaction of the Buddle Findlay board and, as we understand it, the people involved and most directly impacted,” the statement said.

Mulligan had not been in the office since the investigation begun and had since left the partnership.

Members of the Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union, including treasurer Harrison Cunningham, were also aware of an incident in 2018 where Mulligan allegedly made sexual comments at a student event.

A student reported it to the Law Students’ Society who escalated it to the dean who then went to the firm with the complaint, Cunningham said.

Mulligan did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment.

Harrison said since the union had become aware of the Christmas party allegations he and other members had meet with a Buddle Findlay representative who told them they had referred the allegations to the Law Society for investigation.

New Zealand Law Society chief executive Helen Morgan-Banda could not confirm that saying, although they would like to be more transparent, they would be “breaking the law if we commented on any details of concerns or complaints raised with us”.

Buddle Findlay said its focus was and remained supporting those who were involved and most directly impacted. The company said those people had been consulted and kept informed throughout the process.

In the statement Buddle Findlay said it did not tolerate inappropriate behaviour and believed the fact the alleged conduct was addressed straight away was “testament to our culture”.

“It is not acceptable under any circumstances or in any form and our culture reflects our expectations that all our people are respected, cared for and supported.”

The firm said there were “robust” policies and procedures which encouraged staff to talk about inappropriate behaviour without fear.

The union was also critical of the investigation into the allegations saying there was a conflict of interest in the company’s human resources team investigating a partner who was essentially their boss.

Cunningham said they believed Buddle Findlay needed to employ an independent person to conduct an investigation which would also reveal the culture of the firm.

He also criticised the lack of transparency within the firm.

Staff were alerted to his resignation through an email from Buddle Findlay national chairwoman Jennifer Caldwell who thanked Mulligan for his work and said he left with their “best wishes for his future success”.

The email made no mention of the allegations or investigation, Cunningham said.

He claimed the only reason the company made staff aware of the allegations was because of media interest. He said the union believed all staff deserved to know how their firm handled such allegations so they could have confidence that complaints were handled appropriately.

Buddle Findlay said it had made clear to all staff they could talk to the chairwoman, chief executive or director of people and culture if they had any concerns.

“The health, safety and well-being of our people continues to be a key focus for the firm and its board.”

It is not the first time in recent years law firm partners have been called out for inappropriate behaviour.

Most notably, a former Russell McVeagh partner was accused of several instances of sexual misconduct. The allegations stemmed from 2015 but were first made public in 2018. The man will face charges at a disciplinary hearing next month.

The revelation led to an independent review into the firm’s culture by Dame Margaret Bazley which found a “work hard, play hard” attitude which included instances of crude and sexually inappropriate behaviour.

A Law Society working group established the same year also found female lawyers had been subjected to sexual objectification for decades.

Cunningham thought the culture across the industry was starting to change but believed there likely remained a “cultural issue” at Buddle Findlay which allowed the latest incident to happen.

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