As white-collar crime goes, 19-year-old Titilayo Olaifa’s theft while on work experience at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is small potatoes. Nevertheless, by managing to steal £13,500 and attempting to steal £46,500 more, Olaifa attracted a jail term of five months for her theft and “fraud by abuse of position” (as reported on TheLawyer.com, 10 July).
Olaifa was originally introduced to Freshfields in July 2005 through a work placement arranged by the Career Academies UK internship programme – although her thefts were committed two years later after she approached the firm independently in June 2007 and was given a work experience placement in the accounts department.
The report of Olaifa’s crime attracted a barrage of comment from readers of TheLawyer.com, with some slating Freshfields for allowing the theft to take place and questioning the processes within its accounts department.
Every year Freshfields takes on around 50 work experience students via community programmes such as Career Academies UK, and another 50 or so through other avenues, such as the children of staff or friends.
The magic circle firm, whose bank covered the financial loss incurred by Olaifa’s activities, stressed in a statement that “all work experience people are closely supervised and, in this instance, our internal processes and team very quickly picked up that something was wrong”.
Freshfields added that it does not intend to re-evaluate its HR policies or relationships with Career Academies UK or similar schemes.
Its statement continued: “This situation was an unfortunate but completely isolated incident and is not going to affect our willingness to continue our work experience programmes, which the firm regards as very worthwhile.”
While some feel that Freshfields should shoulder some of the blame for the theft, others point out that there was little the firm could have done to stop a determined thief.
A City law firm source said: “If someone’s come with the intention of doing something untoward, you’ll always, unless you’re handcuffed to your supervisor, be able to do something.”
Despite the fact that Olaifa had not been placed by Career Academies UK at the time she committed the theft, her name is now associated with the charity, which aims to raise the aspirations of 16 to 19-year-old middle-achievers from underprivileged inner-city schools.
Career Academies UK chief operating officer Martyn Drain explains how the charity works, saying: “Our students are not the highest-flying academic students, but rather the almost forgotten middle. The real high-flyers get serious assistance and, ironically, so do the ones at the bottom. It’s all about raising their aspirations and helping them realise that opportunities do exist.”
The charity provides ‘academies’ for these students, enabling them to gain an extra two A-level equivalents over a two-year period. Students also receive mentoring from the 500-plus organisations involved in the scheme.
Drain hails the work placements offered by these organisations – typically in a support function – as the “jewel in the crown” of the programme.
While Olaifa’s actions may have tarnished the reputation of Career Academies UK, regardless of the fact that she had arranged her most recent work placement independently, it is clear that little could have been done differently.
Anyone within an organisation can gain access to chequebooks, confidential information or the stationery cupboard. At Freshfields work experience students sign employment contracts and confidentiality agreements.
At Career Academies UK individual schools and colleges select and put forward students. The only step that could be taken to decrease the likelihood of such incidents would be to increase the supervision of temporary staff or to carry out criminal record checks on work experience students. Or cancel their placements altogether.
None of these actions would be likely to send the right message to aspirational students ;from ;‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.
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