Allen + OVery seemed almost shell-shocked when Legal Week reported last month that the Law Society was investigating its role on the Safeway deal.
To make matters worse the Society is now looking at an unrelated claim: last month’s employment tribunal ruling against A&O which found intranet project manager Shazia Wahab had been victimised, although the bulk of her claims were dismissed.
This, at least, is routine in cases of tribunal findings against law firms, but claims that the society is investigating the conflict complaint as a matter of course look wide of the mark. Having received the initial complaint in March from a solicitor unconnected with Safeway, the society decided to press ahead with the investigation, even though the claim was withdrawn in July.
To say that the investigation is damaging to A&O is an understatement. Given that no Law Society official that Legal Week has spoken to can recall a similar move against a major law firm in recent memory, news of the investigation itself is worrying. And any finding against the firm, which has been dubbed Allen & Everywhere by some of its critics, would surely bring it the kind of press usually reserved for the online musings of Clifford Chance’s associates.
Quizzed on the matter, A&O partners display incredulity that things could have taken such a turn while continuing to insist they have done absolutely nothing wrong.
On one level such shock is understandable. The Law Society has recently shown little interest in enforcing its own conflicts rules despite widespread claims that large City firms regularly bend the rules. Indeed, the proposed reform of the existing rules that kicked off four years ago was largely viewed as a method of rubber-stamping current practice as much as a way of modernising what are widely agreed to be confusing and hard-to-apply standards.
Certainly, until last month, the society displayed little will to confront the thorny issue of conflicts, despite Legal Week’s publication in January of research by Bristol University lecturer Janine Griffiths-Baker that alleged that City firms had a cavalier attitude to conflicts.
Pressed on the issue as other alleged conflicts came to light, officials continued to stress the lack of formal complaints while speaking of other regulatory priorities.
Against such a backdrop, the belief of at least some A&O partners that the firm is a victim of politics — given the current Government review of the society’s regulatory role under Prudential chairman David Clementi — has some resonance.
In this context, claims that major City firms can routinely ignore professional conduct rules — a concern recognised in the Government-backed study of legal regulation this year — certainly gain a fresh political significance.