The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has described as “bizarre and not credible” an account given by a City partner of how she valued at £220,000 legal work for a client she had billed at only £3,800.
But it also issued a warning to City firms to look after the wellbeing of partners, given the billing pressure they were under.
Striking Tracey Ann Sheehan off the roll, the SDT said she had dishonestly supplied misleading information about her financial performance to Dentons and Hill Dickinson to persuade the firms to make her an equity partner.
Ms Sheehan, most recently head of telecommunications at Hill Dickinson, was a fixed-share partner at Taylor Wessing between 2001 and 2015. She joined Dentons as an equity partner in October 2015, resigning in September 2017 to join Hill Dickinson.
The SDT said in its written ruling that it did not consider the solicitor was a “credible or persuasive witness” at her tribunal hearing in June, noting she did not recall how she valued work for a client at Taylor Wessing (TW) at £220,000 when applying to be a partner at Dentons, given that TW’s financial system showed it had been billed at just over £3,800.
Her account of how she came to value at £571,000 work for another TW client which the law firm had recorded on its system as billed at £226,000 – claiming she had worked up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week for a period but not billed the time – was “bizarre and not credible”.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said Ms Sheehan’s total billings during her time at TW for the financial years 2011 to 2015, at £2.2m, was less than the amount she had claimed to have billed in each financial year in the schedule.
After the solicitor’s performance at Dentons turned out to be “very poor compared to her purported historical billings at TW”, the law firm approached TW, which did its own research.
TW reported Ms Sheehan to the SRA in July 2017. Ms Sheehan was accused by Dentons of “deliberately and dishonestly” making false statements about her financial performance and resigned in September 2017. Dentons reported her to the SRA in November 2017.
Ms Sheehan said in her evidence at the hearing that the working environment at Dentons was “bullying, unsupportive, undermining and detrimental to her mental and physical health” at a time when she had experienced a “family tragedy”.
The SDT said that, contrary to her claim, there was “no evidence of any campaign on the part of Dentons to ‘force’” her out of the firm.
“There was plentiful evidence of concern at her financial performance. Even had there been such a campaign, it would not have rendered accurate information which bore very little relation to the actual billing or time recording reality.”
At the same time, the tribunal said it was “mindful” of the pressures placed upon partners to meet billing targets, and “also made an observation regarding the importance for firms to ensure the wellbeing of their partners in light of these relentless pressures”.
Ms Sheehan denied all the allegations made against her, including dishonesty. But her evidence that the schedule provided to Dentons were “illustrative” of what she would be able to bill if properly resourced was “at odds” with both what the document actually said and what she had initially told the SRA. There was “nothing whatsoever to corroborate this account”.
She then provided Hill Dickinson with a business plan and schedule of billings as part of the recruitment process which again overstated the value of her billing history for clients. It included clients that she had not billed for any work while at TW and Dentons.
The tribunal found the same figures had been included in the documents provided to Dentons and Hill Dickinson, but in different financial years, and that Ms Sheehan provided “no real explanation” for this.
The SDT said her dishonest conduct was “deliberate, calculated and repeated over time”, although it accepted that she was “under considerable pressure and worked very long hours on a regular basis”.
Her motivation was to “persuade the firms to take her on in a senior partnership positions when they otherwise would not have been likely to do so”.
The solicitor was struck off and fined £51,600.