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Freshfields partnership votes in misconduct penalty as #MeToo continues to overshadow the industry

The partnership of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has voted in sweeping reforms to its handling of misbehaviour, including financial penalties, as the #MeToo fallout continues to plague the profession.

The move to establish a conduct committee followed a consultation and  implements new enforcement protocols that mean partners who receive a final warning about their behaviour could face an automatic fine equal to 20% of their profit share for 12 months. The model is similar to those that have been successfully rolled out elsewhere in professional services, such as accountancy and consultancy firms.

The new rules will require changes to the firm’s members’ agreement. The objectives are: ‘aligning the firm’s partner conduct and disciplinary process across the firm; supporting the objectives of the culture and behaviour programme; and meeting the expectations of our clients and regulators’.

Freshfields will establish a conduct committee – a subcommittee of the partnership council – to oversee investigations and decide outcomes.

The members’ agreement will also be updated to differentiate between forced retirement for misconduct reasons and other reasons including underperformance, enabling the partnership council to suspend a partner who is the subject of an investigation.

The reforms came in the wake of the public embarrassment Freshfields faced in October when the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) fined former partner Ryan Beckwith £35,000 and ordered him to pay £200,000 in legal costs following a high-profile hearing concerning sexual activity with a junior lawyer in his team.

Beckwith was suspended last December and resigned in October after the tribunal found he knew or ought to have known that the junior member of staff was intoxicated and her judgement impaired and that he knew or ought to have known that his conduct was inappropriate.

The tribunal found Beckwith’s behaviour was in breach of principles two and six of the solicitors’ code of conduct, requiring solicitors to ‘act with integrity’ and ‘behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services’.

Freshfields’ protocol will include guidance on what constitutes improper behaviour and provide clarity on what circumstances will be considered to mitigate an outcome, and what are aggravating factors.

A firm-wide programme to improve culture and behaviour has also resulted in a set of principles – ‘Show respect, be there for one another, be positive role models, and be open with one another’ – as a means of tackling these problems.

At the time of the consultation, Senior partner Edward Braham said: ‘We are committed to improving behaviour and inclusiveness. For more than a year we have been running a global behaviours programme to drive culture change, which includes reviewing and adjusting our HR processes, governance and systems across the firm. We want to ensure that positive behaviour is consistently valued and that inappropriate behaviour is called out and acted upon. The plans for a conduct committee and protocol are part of this ongoing programme across the firm.’

The #MeToo spotlight earlier this month became trained on Baker McKenzie’s former London managing partner Gary Senior and the firm itself, with Senior admitting to the SDT that his behaviour after a firm event in 2012 amounted to sexual harassment towards a junior associate, but maintaining he did not believe at the time that his advances were unwanted.

Meanwhile, Bakers stands accused of ‘collective failure’ for the way it handled the allegations, with the firm’s former litigation partner, Tom Cassels, and former HR head, Martin Blackburn, are also facing prosecution for their roles in leading the initial investigation into Senior’s misconduct. The case was adjourned after Blackburn fractured his hip and is set to resume on Monday 16 December.