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

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
News
i100
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

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently recruiting...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job Randstad Education are ...

Year 1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?