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More claims but fewer settlements – McDermott becomes the latest major law firm to face an employment dispute

McDermott Will & Emery yesterday became the latest law firm to stand accused of unfair dismissal and discrimination in the Central London Employment Tribunal (CLET) as experts say the days of settling claims simply to avoid potentially negative publicity are coming to an end.

Former City lawyer Cheng Tan has alleged that she was made redundant after asking to extend her maternity leave, having suffered complications during child birth.

In a statement to the tribunal Tan, who gave birth on 5 May 2011 via an emergency caesarian section, said: ‘I was made redundant because I had had a baby, taken maternity leave and suffered illness as a result of the birth.’

McDermott is fighting the claim and issued a statement saying: ‘The firm denies the allegations made in this case. That said, we cannot comment on specific claims since this is a matter of active litigation.

‘Our policies play a significant role in our hiring, retention and promotion processes. In fact, we have established accountability for diversity and inclusion metrics within our practice groups’ business plans, including hiring plans and talent development initiatives.

‘As a result, we have become a recognized leader in workplace diversity. Recently, Working Mother publication named McDermott one of its 2012 “50 Best Law Firms for Women,” citing the Firm’s family-friendly policies and business development initiatives that are retaining women and advancing them into leadership roles.’

Where it was once extremely rare for employees to bring a claim against a law firm, that culture is changing in common with the more litigious, US-style attitude now adopted within the UK as a whole.

These proceedings come only shortly in the wake of Travers Smith having lost a high profile discrimination case in the CLET in May, brought against it by former trainee, Katie Tantum, who claimed she was not given a permanent job because she fell pregnant.

Linklaters also came before the CLET last month in respect of a claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination, racial discrimination, religious discrimination and breach of contract brought by former paralegal Ali Hussain. Judgment in that case is yet to be handed down.

Jane Mann, head of employment at Fox Williams said: ‘Twenty years ago there was a working assumption that employees wouldn’t sue a law firm but these days that has completely changed as it has in other business sectors. There is a lot of turbulence in our world and so much displacement as law firms restructure and people are quite vulnerable financially.’

This change in attitude has meant law firms, once guilty of settling claims simply to avoid public exposure, are increasingly being forced to take a stand.

Mann added: ‘It’s reached a point where law firms can’t just settle or everyone will make a claim against them. They have to draw a line in the sand, even if that does mean embarrassing publicity.

‘But where a client (firm or individual) has a reputation to protect you have to be extraordinarily careful in assessing how to proceed and how the litigation will play out.’

The claim by Cheng Tan began on July 5 and is scheduled to end tomorrow.