Clifford Chance is to initiate discussions amongst the large London firms “to ratchet up what we can all do to counter corruption”, the firm’s general counsel has revealed.
Chris Perrin said he hoped they would be able to agree a joint statement on that in the coming months.
He was speaking at the annual Transparency International (TI) lecture, hosted last week by Clifford Chance, and also addressed an article in Private Eye last month that claimed the firm had represented clients who, as TI put it on its website, “had amassed suspicious wealth” – one of whom he admitted the firm would not act for again.
Mr Perrin said that, as a major international law firm, Clifford Chance was “very conscious” that it had a part to play in countering the impact of the many “corrupt, dangerous and influential people in the world with the position and ability to undermine the rule of law, human rights and society”.
He continued: “That is reflected in the 20-year collaboration we are proud to have had with Transparency International.
“As lawyers, we have a fundamental commitment to the rule of law and it is entirely contrary to our values to facilitate any breach of it.
“We very much encourage all our lawyers to think about and debate ethical issues, and over a year ago we introduced specific and participative training – for all our people around the world – to discuss who we should, and should not, act for.
“We are clear that there are certainly some governments, organisations and individuals we would never act for.”
Mr Perrin noted that “societal awareness of corruption evolves, as does its reaction to it”, and gave as an example the Private Eye story that said in 2006 it represented Teodorin Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea dictator Teodoro, when he bought a $38m private jet, and then again in 2011 when US investigators seized around $70m of his assets, including Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Last year, Teodorin Obiang was convicted in France in his absence of embezzling tens of millions of Euros from his government and laundering the proceeds in France.
Mr Perrin said: “To be clear: we did not act for Obiang on the purchase of a private jet, and we would never have done so. Our role was in acting for the entity which had lent funds to the seller of the jet.
“Obiang did approach us in 2008 to guide him on his discovery obligations in response to a subpoena in US senate investigations. At the time, we saw that as an access to justice issue, and we therefore agreed to advise him on that one limited issue. We ceased to act on it many years ago.
“It is clearly to be distinguished, in my view, from assisting him in the purchase of a private jet. Under our policies as they have evolved since 2008, we would not now act for the likes of Obiang even on an access to justice issue.”
Mr Perrin added that, with the support of TI, “we are initiating discussions amongst the large London firms in a move to ratchet up what we can all do to counter corruption”.
He continued: “There are inevitably borderline judgement calls in all these firms on what clients or work to take on and, when there are borderline cases, there is always the risk that a decision will later come to be seen as mistaken.
“Nowadays, we have a Clifford Chance responsible business statement, which sets out our standards on issues like corruption, bribery, modern slavery and human rights, and where necessary we require a prospective client to countersign it to confirm that it shares the same values.
“We hope that initiatives like that, and that further dialogue between large firms will help ensure that those guilty of corruption cannot prosper, or hide from the law.”
Later in the event, Robert Barrington, executive director of TI in the UK, was asked how he thought the big law and accountancy firms were dealing with this issue.
Mr Barrington said: “I think we at TI have waited quite a long time for a big law firm to draw a line in the sand and say there are some clients we won’t represent, even on an access to justice type argument. Clifford Chance did that tonight.
“The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating but I think that could represent quite a big step forward.
“One of the things that could emerge in this debate over the next couple of years is this sense that there are some law firms that do this kind of stuff and some that don’t, and I think that’s where we, as an anti-corruption community, need to focus some of our efforts: can you move people to the white end of the scale, as it were, and get that working much better.
“It’s an aspiration at this stage but an aspiration that TI is pretty keen to pursue.”
A journalist from Private Eye at the event noted that Mr Perrin’s statement did not address the other people it was said in the article to have acted for.