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Tribunal finds against Freshfields partner in high-profile misconduct case

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer restructuring partner Ryan Beckwith engaged in sexual activity with a junior female colleague in circumstances in which she was ‘intoxicated to the extent that her judgment was impaired’, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) found today (10 October).

The SDT said at a hearing this morning that Beckwith 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 verdict followed a seven-day hearing that has attracted a stream of headlines.

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’.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority referred Beckwith to the SDT for prosecution in late June 2018 over allegations focusing on two instances: that Beckwith kissed or attempted to kiss Person A (the SDT imposed reporting restrictions on their identity), over whom he was in a position of seniority, and that he initiated and/or engaged in sexual activity with the same person. Both Beckwith and Person A, then an associate at the Magic Circle firm in the restructuring team, were allegedly intoxicated at celebratory events organised by Freshfields in 2016.

The first instance was not found proven, while the second was proven to the required standard. The tribunal made no finding on the issue of consent to the sexual activity.

Beckwith resigned from Freshfields this morning. His lawyer, Alisdair Williamson QC of Three Raymond Buildings, said in mitigation that Beckwith does not know if he can or will work again.

Williamson maintained that Beckwith didn’t initiate the sexual activity but engaged in it, which was inappropriate. He said that Beckwith had not worked since December last year, when Freshfields suspended him on indefinite leave, and had a reduced fee earning role before then.

Calling for mitigation, Williamson pressed the tribunal to consider character evidence, which showed Beckwith was ‘a man who, other than this blemish, was a shining example in the profession’. He urged the SDT to minimise any suspension so that Beckwith could rehabilitate himself. Williamson ended his speech by describing Beckwith as ‘a good man who has been broken by this process’.

SDT chair Nicola Lucking said that consent was not an issue in this case, noting that the SRA had put the allegations forward on the basis that consent was not material to the prosecution.

The SDT fined Beckwith £35,000 and ordered him to pay legal costs of £200,000. Beckwith, who had denied the claims, now has 21 days to appeal the decision. A full written judgment will be published in seven weeks. The ruling comes after 18 months of embarrassing disclosures for the legal industry regarding allegations of harassment and poor treatment of female staff.

Freshfields senior partner Edward Braham issued a statement: ‘We note the ruling of the SDT tribunal earlier today.  Ryan Beckwith has been on indefinite leave from the firm for some time and has now resigned as a partner with immediate effect.

‘The firm takes all complaints extremely seriously. We want a culture that is welcoming and allows our people to flourish, and we work hard to achieve that. We are running a firm-wide programme to ensure our values and behaviours are consistently experienced across the firm, and I am confident we will continue to achieve change where it is needed.’

The first incident in the prosecution took place in May 2016 after a celebratory work event in Oxfordshire. Beckwith was alleged to have kissed or attempted to kiss Person A at a karaoke bar in London that members of the team subsequently went on to drink at later that day. This allegation was not proven.

The second incident took place after an impromptu after-work drinks at the Harrow pub near Freshfields’ Fleet Street offices in July 2016. Beckwith has been found to have engaged in sexual activity with Person A in this instance. The tribunal heard earlier this month that Person A and Beckwith both went back to Person A’s flat. Person A said that she was intoxicated and vulnerable and that her state would have been apparent.

The married father-of-one had argued that Person A had made false allegations against him, that the encounter with her in July had been consensual and that his behaviour was inappropriate from a personal perspective rather than a professional one.

The case has generated a series of lurid headlines for the profession and comes ahead of further disciplinary hearings related to allegations of harassment. The former City head of Baker McKenzie, Gary Senior, and Allen & Overy employment partner Mark Mansell will appear before the SDT in December. The former case relates to a complaint made against Senior, while Mansell’s hearing revolves around his role in drafting a controversial non-disclosure agreement for film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Today’s ruling will also be picked over for potentially resetting the range of regulatory action against solicitors as attitudes harden towards harassment of female staff in the #MeToo era.

Andrew Katzen, head of regulatory law at Hickman & Rose, commented: ‘This case marks a turning point in the way the SRA addresses the increasingly blurred boundary between private and working lives. The allegations against Mr Beckwith were extremely serious but… allegations that, only a few years ago, would likely have been rejected by the SRA as outside their remit.

‘This is the first in a line of SDT hearings in which male partners of City and US law firms are accused of rape, sexual harassment and subsequent cover-ups – allegations which would traditionally be dealt with by a criminal court. As the SRA and the SDT adapt to these new types of misconduct, there are serious questions about whether they can do so fairly.’