A male law firm owner has been fined for saying “mmm, I like what I see” to a young woman applying for a paralegal position and telling her he only employed “beautiful women”.
The 22-year-old woman told the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) that it was the first paralegal role she had applied for and she found the interview a “traumatic” experience.
“I went home and cried. I felt that I could not go into the profession, I built up my hopes of what it would be like and it was crushing,” she said.
Victor Nwosu, 48, the owner of North-West London law firm Dylan Conrad Kreoll, accused ‘Person A’ of lying.
“It’s female activism gone wrong, she has the power, that’s why I am here [because] she’s applied overt activism [and] I am the victim,” he said in cross-examination.
The SDT found that in addition to “mmm, I like what I see”, Mr Nwosu called Person A “very pretty” and “very beautiful”, asked her if she had a brother and a boyfriend, told her that he only employed “beautiful women”, and said she would have to wear skirts and high-heeled shoes at work.
Her version of events was corroborated by WhatsApp messages and voice notes she sent to friends during a break in the interview and also afterwards.
The SDT said that, in cross-examination, Mr Nwosu’s solicitor-advocate, Jonathan Goodwin, “essentially put to Person A that she was not telling the truth, had misunderstood what had taken place during the interview and further that her report of the respondent was motivated by other matters”, particularly what she considered the low salary on offer.
She accepted that she was “dedicated, tenacious and experienced in the field of domestic violence” and Mr Goodwin argued that such a person would not have tolerated behaviour like this.
Person A disagreed and said she was “scared/shocked” in the interview. She also made clear her feelings about Mr Nwosu’s behaviour in a letter the following day rejecting his offer of the job.
Mr Goodwin’s half-way application that there was no case for his client to answer was rejected by the SDT.
It found that Person A’s evidence remained consistent from her initial complaints to friends to her witness statements. “Under extensive cross-examination by Mr Goodwin, Person A maintained her position; that was to her credit.”
The tribunal went on to accept all but one of Person A’s claims – the other was open to interpretation – saying it found her to be “credible, consistent, reliable and persuasive”.
It said the solicitor sought to convey in his evidence that he was reading Person A’s CV for the first time during the interview and that it impressed him so much that he said “mmm, I like what I see”.
The SDT rejected this – he must have seen the CV when deciding to interview her, while “the words used were an extraordinary way to refer to an applicant’s professional credentials in the context of a formal job interview”.
Mr Nwosu argued that Person A had misinterpreted his comments about the firm’s dress code, pointing to a memo he had sent to staff banning “cleavage-baring” tops, crop tops, and mini-skirts and dresses.
He wrote: “We should always be well presented because it is very unprofessional for colleagues to be barring (sic) Skin (sic) inappropriately like people working in clubs or Strippers (sic).”
The SDT said it was “deeply concerned” by what Mr Nwosu had said to Person A and concluded that his conduct was sexually motivated.
“The language used in the memo revealed outdated attitudinal shortcomings predicated on the objectification of women in a sexual manner.
“Referring to Person A’s physical appearance in terms of ‘pretty, beautiful’ and ‘mmm, I like what I see’ could only, in the tribunal’s view, be considered to have sexual connotations.
“Asserting that women should wear ‘skirts and heels’ were opinions which, in the tribunal’s view, could only be held for sexual gratification. Enquiring as to Person A’s personal relationships with regards to a boyfriend and whether she had brothers was designed to ascertain the viability or otherwise of a future sexual relationship.”
The tribunal said the submissions and character references sought to attest to the fact that Mr Nwosu was not a “sexual predator”, but that was not what it was deciding.
In considering the sanction, the SDT recognised the “significant direct harm” caused to Person A and to the profession.
She also told the tribunal: “I felt like a piece of meat and I was objectified… I have a first-class degree and a masters I worked very hard to get where I was.
“I am the only woman in my family who has gone to university. I felt very angry as being a lawyer is not about your looks it is about how you contribute to society. I felt very undermined and underappreciated. I also felt undermined by the salary because of my qualifications and I felt devalued.”
The SDT said Mr Nwosu had shown “a complete lack of insight”, while his reliance on the firm’s equality and diversity policy “was not borne out by his abhorrent behaviour”. He had also taken advantage of a vulnerable person “given the power imbalance”.
Mitigating factors were that the misconduct related to a single, brief episode, the solicitor’s previous unblemished regulatory record, and the character references he proffered.
The SDT concluded that a financial penalty “commensurate with the seriousness of the misconduct would sufficiently protect the overarching public interest”.
Taking into account his limited means, it fined Mr Nwosu £20,000 and ordered him to pay costs of £23,550.