When a partner misbehaves, everyone around them can be tarnished.
There’s a £90,000 hole in the client account.
You stumbled upon it yesterday evening, but convinced yourself that, after a hard day’s grind, you’d probably made a mistake. You went home to sleep on it. Although not before leaving a voicemail for your partner, who’s in Hong Kong, rustling up business. Or so he told you.
He didn’t respond to the voicemail. And neither did he pick up when you called him again this morning. Which is worrying. There is definitely £90,000 missing. No mistake.
The two of you founded the firm 11 years ago. It’s a niche practice, mostly corporate. Doing OK, too. Or was.
What they don’t tell you at law school is the responsibility. The staff who depend upon the partners to pay their mortgages and clothe their kids. And put food on plates, for heaven’s sake.
Eleven years’ hard work down the drain. Clients left in the lurch. Your reputation in ruins. And those personal guarantees you signed – telecoms, IT, the all-bells-and-whistles new printer, the office lease – are swooping home, a dead weight, to roost.
You’ve got to make the phone call. And once you’ve made it, life will never be the same again. Joint and several responsibility: one of the joys of partnership.
Yes. Joint and several responsibility. It doesn’t seem fair, but it’s the law. Creditors don’t have to sue all the partners, or in your case both partners. They can go for the low-lying fruit. And who would you go for? The partner who’s soon likely to be behind bars? Or the one who’s out and about and still has assets? You, in a word.
Phone call. It’s called Red Alert, the SRA’s emergency - and confidential - phone line. They answer after just three rings. It’s a foretaste of how fast things are going to move now. They thank you for the call, but – ‘to manage your expectations’ – warn that you should expect further action to be taken. No surprises there, then.
The files and the computers are the first to go out the front door. You feel a kind of reckless relief, a weight lifted, an aching tooth drawn. Except it doesn’t last, of course. Reality, not to be denied, is lurking in the in-tray and clamouring for your attention in the telephone’s urgent trill.
The staff exits the building next. You’ve written them glowing testimonials, in the hope that prospective employers will take seriously the word of someone who only noticed that 90 grand was missing when it was too late to save the firm.
Self-pity beckons, but there are jobs to be done.
Your partner returns to England. He’s been stupid, he says. It was a get-rich-quick scam, apparently, and he’d fully intended to repay what he’d borrowed. In fact, he repays £80,000 straightaway, leaving a manageable 10 grand outstanding.
But it’s too late. He goes to prison, is struck off the roll and disgraced. You don’t want to talk to or see him again.
You are still not out of the woods. Liability for the lease will bankrupt you and bankrupt lawyers can expect to have their practising certificates revoked. No income, no career. Your occupation’s gone, as the Bard put it. But your guardian angel – in the guise of an Australian law firm – saves the day. It takes over the lease.
Gissa job, you say. You receive a polite refusal, the subtext of which is we wouldn’t touch soiled goods like you with a 12-foot dingo stick.
You’re no longer quite so busy and that’s when the stress, with its ally depression, exacts its toll. You become the destination of choice for every passing bug. When someone a hundred miles away gets a sore throat, you begin to sniff and sneeze.
It gets worse. You have never spent a night in hospital – you’ve still got your tonsils and your appendix – but you’re suddenly entitled to an NHS loyalty card. A volcanic stomach upset sees you, dehydrated and hallucinating, rushed to a hospital ward. Later, you become unsteady on your feet. An ear infection, the quack opines. Chest pains, too, and a mysterious skin rash. Another few nights lying awake between NHS sheets, listening to the snores of strangers.
LawCare [a charity that gives pastoral care to legal professionals] is great. Their counselling almost persuades you to stop blaming yourself. You have an ambivalent attitude, however, to the Law Society. It’s on your side, you tell yourself, but you’re scared of going there. Everybody knows what’s happened, a voice inside your head whispers. They’re talking behind your back, judging you, there’s no smoke without fire.
You have to force yourself to go past your old office, too. You feel a surge of panic, as though the building is going to jump out and bite you.
So you maintain radio silence, which is a big mistake. You need friends now more than ever before. There will be no happy ending to this story, as you told a Gazette journalist over lunch last week. But maybe talking about it is the beginning of the healing process. Maybe.
This article is based upon a true story as told to the journalist. However, certain details have been changed to protect identities.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer