Firms must avoid “knee-jerk response” to sexual misconduct claims

Morris: Seek external PR advice

Law firms must avoid giving a “knee-jerk response” to complaints of sexual harassment, a leading reputation management lawyer has said.

Helen Morris, partner at City firm Kingsley Napley, said firms needed to understand the legal position and “legal advice has to lead communications, and not the other way round”.

Ms Morris also recommended that law firms appoint external PR companies, which would sign non-disclosure agreements, to prevent the sharing of information within a firm and minimise the risk of leaks.

She “strongly recommended” that law firms had a plan in place to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Speaking at a Kingsley Napley webinar on conducting internal investigations into counter-inclusive behaviours, she said allegations could be “shocking and upsetting and involve senior people in the firm”.

Ms Morris said it was important to minimise the sharing of information, which was likely to be defamatory, outside the core group of senior managers dealing with the complaint.

This was to protect the integrity of the investigation and the legal rights of the complainant and the accused during that process.

The easiest way to deal with questions from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as to why the firm took certain decisions on the allegations was by the firm keeping a contemporaneous decision log.

Ms Morris said a “well-conducted, independent investigation of a complaint” was a “strong defence for an organisation”, which could say “it dealt with a difficult situation and did the right thing in difficult circumstances”.

Firms should think from an early stage about their communications plan. “It’s very likely you won’t be able to say very much, but it is important to know that. You don’t want to give a knee-jerk response.”

Nikola Southern, a partner specialising in employment law, said it was “really important for firms to consider their priorities” when facing sexual misconduct allegations.

“Many firms place great importance on keeping the issue confidential. Others are far less concerned about leaks and external publicity. Their focus is on transparency.”

Ms Southern said it was “important not to provide assurances to complainants that they would be able to retain their anonymity” during the investigation stage.

Suspending the respondent should also be handled carefully, to avoid claims of a breach of trust and confidence.

“By suspending them, it is important to be clear that you are not confirming that they have done anything wrong.”

Matthew Hardcastle, a criminal litigation partner, said firms needed to decide if the behaviour was, or might be, a crime.

While sexual touching was “plainly a criminal offence”, there was no criminal offence of sexual harassment. “Is there a positive obligation on the firm to report the matter to the police? Normally it will be a matter of discretion.”

Law firms must also make sure the complainant knows they have a right to report the incident to the police themselves. If there was a report to the police, it was important to engage with the police as soon as possible.

Julie Norris, a partner in regulatory team and chair of the webinar, said one option for firms was to report a complaint to the SRA on an anonymous basis, simply saying a complaint had been made against a partner and there would be regular updates.

She said the SRA might end up reviewing the behaviour “through the backdrop” of the firm’s working practices.

Firms should respond by “exploring whether their firm has a culture where these kinds of behaviours can occur”. They did not need to do that much but it was “something to think about an early stage”.

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