Stand by your man

This has been the week of standing up for your colleagues. Freshfields stood right by its man Barry O’Brien as he faced the Law Society firing squad; British Airways (BA) backed its trusty adviser Slaughter and May despite the whopping £270m fine that’s soon to be followed by a class action that could cost the company untold millions.

BA head of legal and government affairs Maria da Cunha told The Lawyer: “Slaughter and May has advised BA since the inception of the EU Commission cargo and UK Office of Fair Trading passenger investigations. BA is very pleased with the advice it has received on both investigations from Slaughter and May and the firm will continue to advise BA on the EU cargo investigation.”

It was Slaughters of course that started O’Brien’s Marks & Spencer (M&S) nightmare when it brought the injunction against Freshfields way back in 2004.

Since then O’Brien’s career has been put on hold. He began to run for senior partner, but then realised he couldn’t with the M&S investigation hanging over his head.

Despite taking a consultancy role to lock in his pension, he looks unlikely to follow his many colleagues who have headed for the door. Although the temptation of a fresh start must be strong.

Ironically, O’Brien trained at Slaughters – perhaps it could offer O’Brien a lifeline. Or perhaps not.

But partners at Slaughters and across the City are united on two points: they’re horrified at the way O’Brien has been put through the wringer and dismayed at what they see as antiquated conflict rules.

One City partner said: “The same rules apply if you’re a City firm dealing with billion-pound transactions, or if you’re a high street solicitor looking after an old widow.

“Companies need a wide range of legal advisers, they need that flexibility.”

But the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has made its statement: the rules on conflicts will be enforced.

The fine is tiny in City terms, but was close to the maximum possible while the regulator can still only go after individuals rather than firms – something that is set to change with the implementation of the Legal Services Act. The SRA does bite after all – even if it is with milk teeth.