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#MeToo: SRA decides against Freshfields’ Beckwith misconduct sanctions appeal

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has decided not to appeal the sanctions handed to former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer restructuring partner Ryan Beckwith by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for misconduct last October.

The decision brings to a close a long-running and uncomfortable saga for the Magic Circle firm after Beckwith’s sexual activity with a junior member of his team was found to be 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’.

The tribunal handed Beckwith a £35,000 fine and ordered him to pay legal costs of £200,000 in connection with the incident that took place in 2016 after copious alcohol consumption at an after-work drinks.

The financial penalty was not the suspension some were expecting, although the loss of Beckwith’s job (he resigned from Freshfields the morning of the ruling) and question marks over his employability in the City are arguably the real penalties. Beckwith had been on indefinite leave from Freshfields since December 2017.

An SRA spokesperson said the regulator was committed to tackling the issue of sexual harassment: ‘We refer allegations of serious misconduct to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and it is they who reach findings and decide on sanctions. We are able to appeal their decisions if specific legal grounds are met. Following a review of the judgement in this case and having taken legal advice, we have decided not to appeal.’

Earlier this month, The SDT published its judgement explaining the reasons behind the sanctions, entitling the regulator to appeal the decision within 21 days. In the ruling, the SDT said that Beckwith’s misconduct ‘was caused by a lapse in his judgement that was highly unlikely to be repeated’ and did not find he posed a future risk to the public.

‘There had been no clients involved and there was no suggestion that the work of the respondent was anything other than highly competent. Nor did it consider that the respondent posed a future risk to the reputation of the profession,’ the judgment stated.

The partnership of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer last December voted in sweeping reforms to its handling of misbehaviour, including financial penalties, as a way of mitigating the #MeToo fallout.

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.