Legal Opinion: What's wrong with a couple of tyrants on a law firm's client list?

Law firms have to be profitable, but they are not obliged to act for anyone who comes through the door. Not giving enough thought to ethics can be catastrophic, says Matthew Rhodes

There has been a recent flurry of foreign dictators, oligarchs and despotic governments using the English courts to have a pop at anyone with whom they have a grievance. This has led to much comment on the rights and wrongs of "forum shopping", but it also raises the issue of whether law firms should be accepting such instructions in the first place.

The law firm Penningtons clearly has no problem with this. It has recently been acting on behalf of Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial New Guinea, in his attempts to recover damages from Simon Mann and other alleged leaders of an attempted coup against him.

Obiang runs a brutal and corrupt regime and is reported to have eaten the body parts of his executed rivals. He's also reported to have threatened personally to rape Mann before flaying him alive. So it is per-haps unsurprising that when www.rollonfriday.com polled its readers last week, 86 per cent of the thousands of lawyers who responded roundly criticised Penningtons for acting.

Jon Heuvel, the managing partner of the firm's London office, would not comment on its motive for acting other than to say that it raised an interesting point of law and that everyone deserved representation. But solicitors don't have a cab rank rule. They are under no obligation to accept instructions and the overwhelming consensus of the profession is clearly that Penningtons shouldn't have done so.

Of course law firms are commercial concerns and have to be profitable. But most lawyers are altruistic, have a strong social conscience and take their role as officers of the court and members of a profession very seriously. Lawyers were quietly undertaking huge amounts of pro bono work long before it became fashionable for them to produce glossy reports on their corporate social responsibility. They're more likely to be sponsoring an ambulance than chasing it. And, as RollOnFriday's poll showed, most wouldn't even consider helping a dictator pursue a civil action, however much oil he was sitting on.

There's a wider point to this. Firms are very good at following procedures for things they are required to take seriously, such as conflicts and money laundering. But they are rather less good at considering whether they should be acting in the first place.

A ring round some of the largest firms in the City revealed that none of them had an ethics committee charged with reviewing potentially sensitive matters. The best that can be hoped for, apparently, is that a firm's conflicts group would refer anything that looked untoward to its head of risk.

The Obiang case is an extreme example, but firms are asked to advise on all sorts of matters which are rather less clear cut. Should a firm work on the financing of a dam which will result in the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest? What about if that dam will provide sufficiently cheap energy to lift thousands out of poverty? At the moment these sorts of considerations are often left to the personal opinion of one partner.

In the past, firms may have got away with a careless approach, but the press is now taking a keener interest. Penningtons wouldn't comment on how its traditional client base of wealthy individuals and family companies had reacted to the news of its involvement with an alleged cannibal but one can hazard a guess. Large corporate clients who have had ethics committees in place for years will increasingly expect law firms who are pitching for their business to do likewise. Young lawyers who've joined the profession with a desire to do some good are likely to shy away from firms with a couple of tyrants on their client lists.

Law firms are not obliged to act for anyone who comes through their door and the consequences of not giving enough thought to this can be catastrophic. Partners increasingly maintain that they are becoming more corporate in their management structure: setting up defined, sensible procedures for determining their client base would be a good start.

Matthew Rhodes is a founder of www.rollonfriday.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news

Video: It is the type of thing no parent wants to hear

Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Business Development Manager

Competitive: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Bu...

Recruitment Genius: Systems / Network Administrator

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning internet, do...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunity for someone l...

Opilio Recruitment: Technical Recruiter

£35k - 42k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting oppo...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game