SDT clears ex-trainee of lying to law firm about LPC performance

Holland & Knight: Firm let trainee finish his contract

A former trainee in the London office of a US law firm has been cleared of telling partners he had not failed any legal practice course (LPC) examinations, when in fact he had.

However, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) rejected an argument that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) should pay some of William Amo’s costs as a result.

Mr Amo, 32 this year, was employed by Holland & Knight first as a paralegal in May 2018 and then, on the back of his performance, from February 2019 as a trainee solicitor, paying for him to study the LPC.

Mr Amo agreed to give “constant updates” to Robert Ricketts, the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice and training principal, about his progress.

The trainee failed the LPC litigation exam in August 2019, and a re-sit was scheduled for 13 January 2020, which was deferred.

After a ‘whistleblower’ alerted Mr Ricketts to the possibility that Mr Amo had failed an exam, the trainee was asked to provide a full update ahead of an appraisal meeting a fortnight later.

He sent an email with a table containing what he described as ‘completed modules’ and as a result did not mention the litigation module. The firm took a further document he sent just prior to the meeting to show that Mr Amo had sat and passed all his examinations.

In evidence, he said that, had he been required to report on uncompleted, including failed, modules too, he would have done so – despite the litigation “blip”, he thought his LPC performance overall at that point would not reasonably have led the firm to dismiss him.

The SRA alleged that, at the appraisal meeting, attended by Mr Ricketts and partner Victoria Koob, Mr Amo denied having failed any LPC modules. Mr Amo refuted this, saying he told no lies, including by non-disclosure.

While the partners asserted that they had specifically asked Mr Amo if he had failed any examinations, he said they had only asked general questions about how the course was going.

He described Mr Ricketts as a “supporter” of his and that he would have responded had the partner asked him outright whether he had failed an examination.

The SDT recorded: “Mr Amo said that he would never deliberately lie to another solicitor, let alone those who had given him the chance to move from paralegal to solicitor, who he regarded as friends and colleagues.”

In April 2020, Mr Amo told Mr Ricketts he had failed the litigation exam – which he said was in response to a direct question – and the following month it emerged that he had also failed his practical legal assessment at the first attempt.

Mr Ricketts reported Mr Amo’s conduct to the SRA but the law firm allowed him to complete his training contract, which ended on 31 July 2020, at which point he left the firm.

The tribunal said, in what it described as a “finely balanced decision”, that it did not consider the SRA had “proved its case either in part or in full to the required standard of proof, namely the balance of probabilities”.

All the witnesses, including Mr Amo, had been “sincere and credible” in their accounts, but there were neither any minutes of the meeting nor a contemporaneous note.

“In his evidence Mr Ricketts had told the tribunal that during material time he was engaged in very difficult and time-consuming work to save an airline which was imminently to go out of business during the Covid pandemic. Understandably, his mind was not entirely focused on Mr Amo.”

Ms Koob said the whole purpose of the meeting had been to question Mr Amo regarding his success or failure in the examinations based upon the information they had received.

Mr Amo had not known about the whistleblower at the time. The SDT said: “In ignorance of this information, he could not have known the motivation behind the questioning… and issues which may have been clear in their minds may not have transferred clearly to his.”

The SDT said there was “no objective evidence” on which to determine whether his exam performance was discussed in general or direct terms.

“The parties each left the meeting with their own view and belief as to what had taken place and the tribunal would not fill in the evidential gap with its own speculation.”

Costs do not follow the event in the SDT but counsel for Mr Amo, Marc Beaumont, asked for costs. It had taken the SRA nearly three years to take the case to the SDT, leaving Mr Amo in a state of “exquisite agony” whilst he waited for the opportunity to establish his innocence.

Mr Beaumont argued for two-thirds of his £60,000 costs to reflect that it should only have taken a year.

The tribunal said the proceedings had been “correctly brought” by the SRA and, given the reasons for the delay, it had not been excessive. It made no order for costs.

In an earlier procedural decision, the SDT dismissed as “astonishing” arguments put by Holland & Knight to see all the evidence in the case before its witnesses gave evidence.

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