Norton Rose Fulbright’s leadership moves to draw line under Russian sanctions memo controversy

Gerard Pecht publishes statement from leadership team expressing ‘unequivocal’ opposition to Russian invasion

Norton Rose Fulbright’s (NRF’s) leadership team has issued a public statement expressing its ‘unequivocal’ opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a bid to draw a line under controversy surrounding an internal memo telling lawyers not to comment on Russian sanctions.

The statement was posted on LinkedIn by global chief executive Gerard Pecht on Tuesday evening US time having also been circulated internally after the firm had earlier clarified its position on the memo stating that it did not prevent staff from speaking out against the invasion.

‘Norton Rose Fulbright’s leadership unequivocally stands with the people of Ukraine and against the invasion of their country by Russia,’ the statement said. ‘We remain profoundly shocked and saddened by the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine and we support all efforts to end this war.’

The statement added that the firm was making ‘appropriate adjustments to comply with all sanctions and new laws, which will result in us ending certain of our client relationships’. It said further updates would be provided as events developed.

The controversy blew up on Monday when The Lawyer revealed the existence of the memo which the firm said had specifically related ‘to external commentary on sanctions’ due to the importance of legal advice being issued through ‘the appropriate channels’.

Sharing The Lawyer article on LinkedIn, Shearman & Shearman’s global managing partner, George Casey, wrote: ’To my friends at Norton Rose Fullbright - are you serious?! In this defining moment for humanity, which side of history are you choosing?’

Walied Soliman, chair of NRF Canada, replied: ‘I want to be absolutely clear: we stand with the people of Ukraine. Period. I encourage all of our partners and colleagues to speak out.’

Soliman’s comments reflected a clarification of the firm’s position in relation to the memo on Tuesday when it said that it did not ‘in any way prevent members of the firm from voicing any views that they may hold on the wider Ukraine invasion and we fully support them doing so’.

The controversy highlights the intense pressure leading law firms are coming under to take a position on public affairs when they have historically preferred to have a lower profile. For firms with Russian offices – which include NRF – there is the additional concern of the impact public comments may have on staff and Pecht's statement said the firm 'was mindful of our 50+ colleagues and their families in our Moscow office'.

LinkedIn has, nevertheless, been awash with posts condemning the invasion by commercial lawyers, many writing in a personal capacity. They include partners from firms which have acted for Russian clients including Hogan Lovells and Quinn Emanuel.

Michael Evans, former EMEA head of communications at Baker McKenzie and a director at Byfield Reputation Counsel, said law firms were facing pressure to take a public stance on the invasion from their clients and their employees, ‘the two most important stakeholder groups for any professional services business’.

He added: “I’ve never seen such a binary reputational issue for business as Putin’s detestable invasion of Ukraine. If there is one thing you do not want to be on the wrong side of it is history.” 

Yesterday, top 30 UK law firm Kennedys said it was in the process of closing its Moscow office having taken the decision last year as it was “uncomfortable with the direction the country was taking”, according to global senior partner Nick Thomas.

White & Case, Linklaters also joined Bakers in confirming that they were reviewing their Russian client rosters, with White & Case, like Bakers, revealing that this would involve some clients being dropped.

Earlier this week, London-based arbitration specialists James Dingley and Baiju Vasani revealed that they were leaving Ivanyan and Partners and that its London office would close. US firms Sidley Austin and Venable also confirmed that they have ceased advising Russian clients caught up in sanctions. 

Email your news and story ideas to: [email protected]