04 Sep 2020

Tribunal censures Ex-Baker McKenzie London head for 'extraordinary abuse of position' over attempted kiss

Judgment in Gary Senior case also points to 'mistakes' during firm's investigation

Former Baker McKenzie London managing partner Gary Senior’s attempt to embrace and kiss a junior fee earner in a hotel room amounted to ‘an extraordinary abuse of his position’, a disciplinary tribunal has found.

In a judgment issued today, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said Senior, who had enjoyed a ‘stellar career’ prior to the incident in 2012, had also taken advantage of his seniority within the firm and the lack of a more ‘formal’ investigation process to try and influence the investigation’s outcome.

The judgment’s release follows the tribunal’s decision in June to fine Senior £55,000 with £48,000 costs for serious professional misconduct but clear Bakers, former disputes partner Tom Cassels and former head of HR Martin Blackburn of mishandling the investigation — although it said errors of judgment and mistakes had been made.

The incident occurred following a university recruitment event organised by the firm. After trips to a bar and night club, Senior had invited the Bakers contingent to his bedroom to continue drinking from the minibar and then asked the complainant – Person A – to remain in the room as the others left.

‘Person A was a junior fee-earner in his [Senior’s] hotel room, having remained there at his instigation,’ the judgment states. ‘The First Respondent [Senior] had attempted intimate contact with that junior employee after a work-related event and had persisted despite being told what he ought to have known anyway, that his behaviour was not appropriate and that Person A wanted it to stop.’

It adds: ‘The harm caused to Person A was devastating. As a direct result of the incident in the hotel room, her career took an entirely different path.’

The judgment goes on to outline how email chains between Senior and Cassels – a disputes partner and management committee member who led the subsequent investigation – and then head of HR Martin Blackburn showed he had ‘clearly been trying to influence the conduct of the investigation’.

Senior ‘was in a unique position in the firm and emails from him carried more weight than they would coming from a more junior employee’, it says.

While the tribunal found the allegations against Bakers, Cassels, now a partner at Linklaters, and Blackburn concerning the conduct of the investigation not proven, it said the firm should have had a ‘clearer and more independent process’ for handling the complaint.

It said it was unwise for the two men to have such key roles in the probe as they were both close to Senior leading to ‘errors of judgement and mistakes’. 

‘There should have been a more formal approach and one in which everything was committed to writing,’ the judgment states. 

It concludes that while it ‘did not endorse the investigation into Person A’s complaint as an example of best practice’ it was ‘satisfied that the investigation had been sufficiently independent and, for the purposes of assessing whether professional misconduct had taken place, did not need to be investigated externally’.

The investigation resulted in a written warning for Senior while Person A signed a non-disclosure agreement with a cash settlement and quit the firm.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority had referred the case to the SDT in July 2019, details of the incident having become public in February 2018 following a report by news site Rollonfriday.com, after which Senior left the firm.

In a statement issued after the June ruling, Senior said: “I bitterly regret what happened in 2012. The matter was not covered up by the firm in 2012. An investigation was carried out by the firm involving a number of senior partners.

“At the time I believed I behaved appropriately in that investigation while cooperating with them and no comment to the contrary was made to me by those conducting the process.”

Bakers pointed to “the actions we have taken and policies we have introduced that ensure that all of our people, regardless of seniority, feel empowered to call out wrong or inappropriate behaviour”.

It added: “Following this incident, we have also enhanced our internal policies, including around corporate governance. Something like this must never happen again.”