A moment of madness: a lifetime of regret?

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You may think what you do outside the office is irrelevant to your career. Far from it. As many high-fliers have found to their cost, Helen Jones discovers, putting one foot wrong can be the end of it.

Gordon Thompson owns a chain of coffee shops housed in old police boxes around Edinburgh. His wife, Maria, is a New Age therapist, teaches businessmen motivation techniques such as fire walking and has performed as a stage hypnotist. A few years ago both were high-profile partners in Scotland's largest firm of solicitors. They had a reputation for using modern management techniques imported from America and were the first lawyers to run a TV ad campaign. This starred Mr Thompson shot in moody black and white astride a Harley Davidson with the slogan " Gordon Thompson. A good man to have on your side". They enjoyed all the trappings that professional success brings but their dramatic career changes were not a result of downshifting. Gordon and Maria Thompson were struck off.

The couple were accused of poaching clients although Mr Thompson says it was a case of professional jealousy. "We grew to be the largest firm in Scotland in four years. We used para-legals. We did a TV ad. We used motivational techniques to gee the staff up to get business and all that made the profession very unhappy," he says. The effect on the couple and their children was devastating. " We were penniless - we lost the house and the kids had to leave their schools. It was very difficult to handle," says Mr Thompson.

When high-flying professionals fall, they tend to fall from a great height. We have all experienced the delicious thrill of schadenfreude when a county court judge or MP is caught drink driving or when a "randy reverend" is caught with his trousers down, but they, like everyone else, are human. One of the most recent cases of a career ruined by a moment of madness is that of Penelope Schofield, a successful solicitor who lied to protect her boyfriend who was facing a drink-driving charge. Ms Schofield has been jailed for three months for perverting the course of justice and is almost certain to be struck off by the Law Society.

In an average year 50 solicitors are struck off, two or three barristers debarred, seven dentists prevented from practising, and 17 accountants excluded from the Chartered Institute. To be struck off is the greatest punishment and usually happens in cases of gross professional misconduct. However, professional bodies deal with many other lesser cases which may result in a stiff warning, a fine or suspension for a year.

Those in the legal profession face the highest demands upon their personal integrity. As County Court judge, Angus Macarthur, who was recently jailed for drink-driving, was told by the magistrate passing sentence: "Those who administer the law have a special responsibility to obey the law." David James, head of legal services at the Bar Council, says that when students apply to be a member of one of the Inns of Court they are asked whether they have ever been convicted of an offence although he adds " there is no rule that says you can't enter an Inn if you have a conviction but if you are convicted of dishonesty then it may suggest that you are not suited to being a lawyer."

Steven Smith, (not his real name) a qualified solicitor, says "Getting into the legal profession was a bit touch and go. When I was a student I was involved in some vandalism when I was drunk. I was charged and convicted and felt that my legal career was over before it had even begun but fortunately they let me in."

However, Mr Smith says he feels he must now be "whiter than white" and says "I don't drink and drive and I don't smoke dope at parties although I know a lot of other lawyers that do. It's just not worth the risk."

While it's understandable that those who uphold the law have to be seen to obey it, or those found guilty of medical negligence are banned from practising, staff in other professions may find that misdemeanours or mistakes in their private life may have an impact at work.

One accountant who doesn't want to be named says "I was done for drink- driving. It was a first offence and I wasn't much over the limit. I don't drive in my job and I don't have a company car but I still got a grilling from my boss at work about it. Frankly I don't think it's any of his bloody business what I get up to outside work." It's a situation familiar to West Ham footballer Rio Ferdinand who was dropped from the England squad following a drink-driving incident. Having been deemed to have learned his lesson he has subsequently been reinstated.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, says that the way companies deal with offences varies. " It depends whether an offence is something to do with the type of work that you do or not. If it is, then it will definitely have an impact on your career. But if the offence is something to do with your private life then companies are unlikely to get rid of you. Many organisations are reluctant to go through the process."

However, he adds that that doesn't mean that your career won't be affected. "It could mean that you face social ostracism at work or your route up the career ladder is halted. That may mean that your career within a particular company is effectively over and so you may be forced to go of your own accord."

It's something that has happened to Michael Scott (not his real name) who has been forced to leave a communications firm following a whispering campaign by former colleagues. Mr Scott split up with a girlfriend acrimoniously, she then phoned his work colleagues and told them that he used to beat her up which was untrue. "Nobody said anything directly but I got the impression that they felt there might be some truth in it. It was all very embarrassing so I found a new job," he says.

While errors, misdemeanours or being found guilty of professional misconduct can have an enormous impact on career progression it doesn't necessarily mean that life is over. Gordon Thompson says "It was tough but after we were struck off we decided to travel round the world."

During their travels Mr Thompson recognised the growing popularity of good quality coffee shops and decided to take the concept to Scotland. Meanwhile, Mrs Thompson studied hypnotherapy in Los Angeles and learned motivation techniques. " It's been a challenge but I'm much happier now than being a lawyer," he says.