Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Twitter cries foul

Twitter cries foul


Dropping the ball can hit solicitors where it really hurts: their wallets, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

Just as the majority of England football fans are trying to avoid being tarred with the same brush as a minority of hooligans causing trouble abroad, lawyers would be forgiven for keeping a low profile of late. It has, after all, been a rough week for the 'solicitor' brand.

In what was an open goal for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), sports television rights specialist Nicholas West has been fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £12,000 in costs by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal after the DLA Piper partner was found to have exchanged a host of sexist and offensive emails with a client.

Meanwhile, Olswang was shown a yellow card for its role in the collapse of retail giant BHS. Appearing before a joint parliamentary committee, the store's former owner, Sir Philip Green, blamed the 'respected' firm for lending Dominic Chappell 'vital credibility' in his purchase of BHS, despite the new owner having been twice declared bankrupt.

The firm is already in MPs' crosshairs over questions it failed in its due diligence when advising Retail Acquisitions Limited on the deal for BHS and for failing to reveal the fees it received, even though Magic Circle outfit Linklaters and international firm Nabarro have already provided a breakdown of their fees in connection with the sale.

However, these professional fouls pale in significance when compared to the spectacular own goal scored by Baker Small. The Milton Keynes-based firm has been accused of gloating after posting a string of tweets about a 'great win' against the parents of a child with special educational needs (SEN).

Blame for the PR disaster engulfing the niche practice can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the firm's founder, Mark Small. Described by some as 'the Terminator', thanks to a reputation for 'aggressive fighting' against SEN funding, Small has apologised for the 'distress and upset to parents and carers', pledged to make a donation to charity, and self-referred himself to the regulator.

If the wrath of the Twitteratti and an SRA investigation weren't bad enough, eight local authorities have announced a review or suspension of their contracts with Baker Small. Norfolk Council said it will be 'making arrangements to cease working with them as soon as possible', as Cambridgeshire and Barnet confirmed they would not refer the firm any new cases. Hammersmith and Fulham, Hertfordshire, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster also said they would stop instructing the firm, while Gloucestershire is considering its contract.

With 80 per cent of instructions arising from education law, and estimates that its total lost contracts may be worth £1m, how will Baker Small plug the hole in its future income? Well, if Small is to believed, the firm will represent parents whose children have been denied SEN funding. It is unclear whether this new plan is blind optimism or a clever strategy designed to cash in on the firm's recent notoriety.

As I wrote last year, following the Protein World saga, all a law firm needs to do to become a household name is insult enough of the population. But will parents really want a solicitor who once fought so hard against their cause? My suspicion is they won't.

At SJ towers, it has also been a tumultuous week. This will be the last issue published with Laura Clenshaw at its helm. Having previously been the editor of little-sister title Young Lawyer, Laura became SJ's managing editor two years ago. Since then she has set about reinvigorating the world's longest-running legal journal with a modern tone, commissioned exciting new authors, and launched our inaugural awards ceremony to much fanfare and acclaim.

In addition to working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this publication run like a finely made Swiss clock, Laura has also, through her writing, championed the role of women in the profession. So it is fitting that in this, her final issue, she has put pen to paper to highlight the work of BLM in fighting everyday sexism and bringing more female lawyers back into the workplace.

SJ's loss, however, is the SRA's gain, as Laura will be moving on to work for the regulator. From the whole of your loyal team, thank you and good luck.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal