How doing a friend a favour can turn sour

An aristocratic, high-profile polo-playing friend of Prince Charles, who is also a merchant banker and a Cambridge graduate, could sound like the ideal client – but not so if you’re Olswang and the client is Broderick Munro-Wilson, the man branded a “cad” by a High Court judge in 1993 for harassing his ex-girlfriend, and who has been a thorn in the firm’s side for much of the last 13 years.

Olswang has just successfully fought off a negligence claim from Munro-Wilson, known as ’Brod’ to his friends, who claimed the firm did nothing after he retained it to sue some former business associates for alleged conspiracy.

Olswang may think this is the end of its relationship with the ’cad’, who was also described as “manipulative” and someone who “frequently exaggerates and sometimes lies” by Mr Justice Goldring in the negligence case. But no. The latest news from Brod’s law firm, Mishcon de Reya, is that he is considering launching an appeal and that his firm will back him.

The judgment, handed down last month, features one of the most bizarre stories about a relationship between a law firm and a client ever told. The judge accepted that Olswang had never agreed to act for Brod in his alleged conspiracy claim. Unfortunately, the firm – and in particular former partner Caroline Kean – gave him enough opportunity to proceed to trial, although ultimately without success.

Brod claimed that he had retained Olswang because Kean, a good friend throughout the 1990s, had advised him as a “mate”, but not as his solicitor, (sometimes over lunch or drinks at The Savoy) about the prospects of bringing a conspiracy claim against third parties. This allowed him to translate a cosy chat over canapés into a retainer, enabling him to bring a claim for negligence against Olswang. (The conspiracy case was never commenced.)

This judgment highlights the potential perils for any solicitor doing a ’friend a favour’. Friendships clearly do not preclude negligence claims.

Brod’s relationship with Olswang started in the late 1980s, when he was director of the now defunct merchant bank Munro Corporate, a specialist outfit providing equity finance for small and medium-sized companies.

Munro descended into chaos when in 1986 it bought a motor home hire company called Apex Stevens. Dr John Bleby, a non-executive chairman of Munro, became chairman of Apex and Brod stood down as director of Munro, on the agreement that he would be reinstated shortly. He was not reinstated, Bleby and other members of the Munro board launched a claim against him and the events culminated in Munro going into liquidation and Apex into receivership.

This saga led to Brod losing most of his money. By 1990 he owed Olswang some £173,000 in legal fees, which he and his associated companies could not pay.

This was the largest outstanding bill the firm had ever had, and it was forced to issue bankruptcy proceedings against him. According to the judgment, the situation forced the firm to overhaul its billing system so that clients would never again be allowed to bleed so many dead hours from its timesheets.

At this point, you would think that Brod would have chosen another firm. But allegedly he had an entirely plausible claim against his former business associates and was determined to get Olswang, and Kean in particular, to act.

Having issued bankruptcy proceedings against him, Olswang’s former senior partner Simon Olswang and former managing partner Mark Akerman were determined that would be an end to their firm’s relationship with Brod. But Kean, who the judge found had an “unusual” relationship with Brod, and was “fond” of him, stayed in touch.

In 1990 Simon Olswang sent an internal memo to Kean, who now practices at media firm Wiggin & Co, warning that Brod may try to fool her that he had authorised Olswang to act in this potential claim for conspiracy.

“Brod collared me yesterday as I was leaving the office. He told me that his company faced a situation in which it would probably be advised to commence injunction proceedings… I am concerned that you should not be informed by Brod… that I had ’authorised the proceedings’,” the memo read.

Kean accepted this, but stayed on friendly terms with Brod, who even wrote to her while she was at home on maternity leave regarding various other bouts of litigation he was involved in.

In 1993, Brod retained Kean on a separate matter for a company with which he was associated. The firm received £5,000 on account. Akerman, Olswang’s managing partner at the time, sent Kean a note asking whether it was “really very wise to become involved with Brod again?”

Kean accepted the instruction. Brod had other cases on the go and he sought to involve her. Again, without any official retainer, she simply helped him out.

In May 1993, facing a harassment injunction from Samantha Bleby, an ex-girlfriend and John Bleby’s daughter, Brod bumped into Kean outside the law courts. This led to him sending Kean his draft defence.

Samantha Bleby got the injunction. In 1994, Brod, who still wanted to bring the claim for conspiracy against Samantha’s father and others, planned a strategy that would “launch forth against the Blebys on all fronts”, states the judgment.

When Kean accepted a new partnership at Wiggins later that year, she decided she would take this new conspiracy case. While still at Olswang, she drafted a letter to Dr Bleby’s solicitors, Burton Copeland, relating to the conspiracy claim. This, the judge found, was evidence of her acting “wholly inappropriately for a solicitor”.

Following Kean’s move to Wiggins, the conspiracy case was abandoned. Neverthe-less, and against her better judgement, Kean’s friendship with Brod had clouded her vision and ultimately led to her becoming embroiled in the high-value negligence claim that Brod had brought against her former firm. Not to mention the daunting cross-examination she had to face in the High Court. She won’t be doing that again.

Olswang is the second firm Brod has sued for negligence, the first being the now defunct Swepstone Walsh in 1998.

Mishcons maintains that Brod is a longstanding client who it will support in whatever course he takes. Lawyers familiar with Brod – and there are many – will be watching the development of this case closely. Just in case he comes back to haunt them, too.

naomi.rovnick@thelawyer.com