By Sheila Mckenzie-
A former partner at a south-east law firm has told a tribunal she was working in a ‘morally bankrupt environment’ and subjected to years of bullying.
Helen Clifford, who was head of the personal injury department, accused the firm of constructive dismissal in September 2018 after a period of intimidation and victimization.She told the tribunal of a culture of bullying, extended to her when she spoke out on behalf of junior members of staff who had aired grievances.The hearing it was an application by Clifford for disclosure of staff grievance documents and details of complaints supposedly held by McMillan Williams.
Clifford’s testimony was damning and presented McMillan Solicitors badly. It painted a picture of lawlessness in a law firm, a highly ironic mix. Bullying, sexual harassment, racism, assault, the lot was going on in this law firm, according to Clifford.
Clifford is a very reputaBle injury lawyer, known for her legal competence and appetite for justice. She has been successful against organisations like the Ministry of Defense, Crossrail, major construction companies and insurers.
Clifford told the employment tribunal, that staff had complained of sexual harassment by senior staff. She also alleged that specific instructions were then issued to middle management to cover up such accusations. Most worrying among her claims, was that on one occasion, former chief executive Column Smith was assaulted on the office premises by a senior figure at the firm, after he stepped in to protect a complaining female member of staff.
‘It was a culture of fear and a culture of bullying within this firm,’ said Clifford, who has made her claim against both McMillan Williams and current chief executive Dominic Harrison. Yesterday’s hearing was an application by Clifford for disclosure of staff documents ahead of a substantive hearing next year.
‘There was very much an old boy’s club,’ Clifford said. ‘All the senior people now are white, male, middle-aged and middle-class. They were all educated at similar universities and send their children to Eton. As an in-joke they decided on a pet project to remove those who were not members of their club. They called it “Project Snowflake”. There are accountancy reports that refer to it.’
Describing the working environment as ‘sickening’, she said junior members of staff approached her to report they were being sexually harassed. She alleged that one woman was near-suicidal, but when she reported what was happening to one partner he was told to ‘sweep it under the carpet’. This was despite the female lawyer allegedly having a recording of the harassment she had suffered. Clifford said she acted as a mediator and strived to protect the firm’s name, but she was marginalised as a result of supporting the woman. It was stated that shortly after grievances were raised, the woman was told she would not be offered a position at the firm on qualification.
Clifford told the tribunal that a female worker was once moved to her department after allegations of bullying in another department. Clifford said the lawyer was good but arrived in her department as a ‘nervous and insecure individual’ because of the bullying.
Clifford said it ‘broke my heart’ to be fighting internal battles with her own firm, adding that she herself became ill with stress. She now works as a consultant at another firm because she needs a more ‘protected’ working environment. Clifford wants the tribunal to allow a former colleague, who signed a non-disclosure agreement after leaving the firm, to give evidence about her treatment. Clifford alleged this treatment included complaints of bullying, harassment and racism.
Betsan Criddle, on behalf of the defendants, conemened Clifford’s application a ‘fishing expedition’ . She said it had not even been established by Clifford that the documents she wants to be disclosed even existed.