Baker McKenzie chiefs took counsel before deciding they did not need to report an alleged incident of sexual misconduct involving the London managing partner to the regulator, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has heard.
Former London managing partner Gary Senior is accused of trying to embrace and kiss a junior associate referred to as 'Person A' in a hotel room in 2012, despite receiving no indication of consent. He denies misconduct.
Last year the tribunal heard that it did not occur to anyone at the firm that the alleged misconduct needed to be reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. On Friday, Andrew Tabachnik QC, for the SRA, read out extracts from his cross-examination of partners on the matter as he questioned Martin Blackburn, who was head of HR at the time.
Tabachnik said: ‘You refer to Thomas Cassels [a partner at the firm] and you say that he told you he had spoken to other management committee partners... On what basis did you understand that they decided there was no need to report?’
Blackburn said: ‘I remember it was towards the end of it, tying up loose ends. "One thing, this is what we have done. We have taken counsel."' Tabachnik said Blackburn’s recollection was ‘at best a false memory you have of this supposed conversation’.
Richard Coleman QC, for Cassels, told Blackburn his client did not recall having the conversation. Blackburn replied: 'They're words I do remember him saying, he had "taken counsel".’
Tabachnik asked Blackburn why the firm’s general counsel was not told about a £140,000 settlement agreement being negotiated to be paid to Person A. Blackburn said it was ‘not my experience’ that the GC could be relied on to keep matters confidential. His comments were brought up during cross-examination by Patricia Robertson QC, for Baker McKenzie.
Robertson said: ‘The first we heard of any such concerns came from your evidence this morning. You do not accept that the [GC] is someone who can keep a secret. You have never mentioned that before, Mr Blackburn. It is not in your statement. It was not put to anyone on your behalf.’
Blackburn replied: ‘The fundamental reason I do not go and tell [the GC] is because it is not within my gift to determine who we should be speaking to.’
Robertson said the GC was engaging with an external law firm advising Baker McKenzie at the time ‘on another highly sensitive matter because he is trusted to do so by the LLP'.
Blackburn is accused of allowing Senior to improperly influence or seek to influence the subsequent investigation following Person A's complaint. He denies the SRA's allegations.
Cassels was cross-examined last year and denied the allegation that failure to report Senior's alleged misconduct or the firm's findings regarding Senior's alleged misconduct breached SRA principles.
The firm is also being prosecuted. A spokesperson said: 'We have been co-operating fully with the Solicitors Regulation Authority since the beginning of this process in 2018. We have learned much from this episode, recognised what went wrong and have well-established and effective policies and programmes in place across the firm.'
The hearing, which is being conducted remotely, continues.