Paris bar dismisses Mayer Brown complaint against campaigning lawyer

The Paris bar’s disciplinary body has thrown out a complaint brought by Mayer Brown against a lawyer alleging the firm had been exaggerating the number of partners it had in France.

Mayer Brown’s complaint was brought against Avi Bitton, a former Clifford Chance lawyer who has since become a campaigner for the rights of associates in France.

The complaint stemmed from articles penned by Bitton in late 2012 and early 2013 and published on the website of the Manifeste des Avocats Collaborateurs (MAC), a ‘union’ for associates which he heads. In the articles, Bitton claimed that Mayer Brown was one of a number of international firms which was touting French lawyers as partners on its own website, while listing the same lawyers as ‘collaborateurs’, or associates, on the Paris bar directory.

Bitton said the firm was claiming it had 24 partners in Paris, whilst only nine male lawyers were named as partners on the official directory. He said that Mayer Brown was one of “several” international firms “publicly presenting some of its lawyers as ‘partners’, when they have none of the attributes of a partner: no shares, no voting rights, no interest in profit and loss”.

In the same article, Bitton said the firm was also promoting female lawyers as partners as a recruitment and marketing tool, but that these lawyers were actually associates.

In a later piece, Bitton specifically named former French minister Jeannette Bougrab, who was hired as a partner by Mayer Brown in December 2012, as one of these “false partners” because she also appeared as an associate rather than a partner on the Paris bar directory. Bougrab has since left the firm.

Bougrab and the firm went on to issue a complaint against Bitton, and the bar entered into disciplinary proceedings against him early last year. After several hearings, the disciplinary council last month dismissed the complaint, along with three separate complaints relating to Bitton’s union activities. He received a warning for a fifth complaint, relating to a dispute between an associate and their employer.

In their judgment on 18 February, the five-strong panel said Bitton’s actions were justified due to his campaigning activities, and also because Mayer Brown had “regularised” the situation following the articles. The Paris bar directory entry for Mayer Brown now lists 22 partners.

In the case of Bougrab, the panel said that MAC was justified in raising the question of her status due to the fact that she was an “eminent public personality”.

Bitton told The Lawyer he was concerned that international firms were misleading both clients and potential new hires by saying associates were partners – the former by possible overcharging, and the latter by suggesting that new joiners had a good chance of promotion. He said French company law mandated that partners had voting rights or a stake in the business, and claimed that at the time he wrote the articles this had not been the case at Mayer Brown, which is established as a French Selas (Société d’Exercice Libéral par Actions Simplifiée, or a simplified joint stock professional partnership).

“We have the evidence that these ‘false partners’ had an associate contract with the firm,” he said.

Although most international firms include their French operations under the umbrella of their UK or international LLP, or have a separate LLP incorporated for France, some choose a French partnership structure like the Selas instead.

“A lawyer practising in France must comply with French rules,” Bitton added.

Mayer Brown declined to comment.

Bitton first hit the headlines in 2005, when he brought an unfair dismissal claim against Clifford Chance. After several court hearings, Bitton’s position was upheld by the French Ministry for Employment (4 April 2005). Since then, he has been heavily involved in union activity on behalf of associates, including supporting a legacy Herbert Smith associate in a dispute with the firm in 2009 (8 December 2009).

He was elected as a member of the Paris bar council for three years in late 2012.