Law firm could face investigation by regulator for "confidential settlement" over alleged sexual assault.
Baker McKenzie has confirmed that it reached a “confidential settlement” with a female associate who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by one of the firm’s partners.The firm is understood to have made a “substantial” payment to the woman who has since the left the firm. The partner concerned, who is said to have offered to make a donation to charity following the incident, has subsequently been promoted.
The allegation, which was first reported by website Roll on Friday, is said to have taken place several years ago after an event when the partner invited several associates, including the alleged victim, back to his hotel room for drinks. The firm said: 'This incident occurred several years ago and was reported by our HR team at the time.' It said that it 'treated the allegation very seriously and immediately carried out a thorough investigation, including obtaining both external and internal advice. On completion of the investigation, the firm imposed sanctions on the partner concerned. A confidential settlement was then reached with the employee, which we are not in a position to discuss.'
Code of business conduct
The firm added: 'Our code of business conduct reflects the values of our organisation, and we expect all of our people, whether partners or employees, to abide by the principles and standards of behaviour set out in that code.' In a further story in The Times newspaper, it emerged that the firm’s actions could come under scrutiny from the profession’s regulator in England and Wales, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). An SRA spokesman said that its investigators would seek relevant information from Baker McKenzie with a view to taking appropriate action.
From a regulatory perspective, if the firm thought that the partner’s behaviour could have amounted to professional misconduct under the code of conduct, it should have reported the matter to the watchdog. The SRA told The Times that its code of conduct stipulates that 'entering into an agreement which would attempt to preclude the SRA or the Legal Ombudsman from investigating any actual or potential complaint or allegation of professional misconduct' may demonstrate that a firm is not complying with professional principles. The SRA is also understood to be investigating whether Baker McKenzie reported the incident to the police. Baker McKenzie told The Times that it was “in dialogue” with the regulator over the matter.
The firm said: 'As a firm, our values of inclusion and diversity are extremely important to us and we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all employees.That is why we are commissioning an independent review of this particular incident and how it was subsequently handled by the firm. The review will also consider how we handle complaints of sexual misconduct and other inappropriate behaviour toward colleagues, to ensure we are guaranteeing the protection of our employees. We are really sorry this incident ever happened and we acknowledge we should have handled it better.'