How do you check yours?

With conflicts rules governing law firms once more under the spotlight, Joanne Harris investigates just how the City’s finest manage the process


New York managing partner Mark Welling oversees Allen & Overy’s (A&O) conflicts checking procedure. He heads a global business acceptance unit made up of lawyers spread across the firm.

On receiving new instructions, an A&O lawyer sends an email alert to the entire partnership. This asks for any objections to the new client being taken on and acts rather like the publication of banns before marriage.

Should any issues be brought up, the matter is referred to Welling and the acceptance unit. The unit examines the case and discusses it with the relevant partners. The client is also consulted, even if the firm does not see a conflict of interest occurring, and it will back down if the client is unhappy.

In guarding against conflicts, A&O looks at the rules for all jurisdictions concerned. The firm turns away a large number of matters due to conflicts of interest every week.

Clifford Chance set up its current conflicts checking system in January 2000 as a response to the firm’s mergers that year in Germany and the US.

When a lawyer gets a call from a prospective client, they fill in an electronic ‘new matter’ form. This is sent to one of four clearance centres – the largest of these, headed by Angela Robertson, is in London, while others are in New York, Hong Kong and Frankfurt, employing 50 legally trained staff globally.

These specialists check whether the job would create an immediate or future conflict of interest. They also look for money laundering issues, political sanctions in effect in concerned jurisdictions, the effect on the firm’s reputation and any credit risk.

If the databases throw up an issue, the case is discussed with the referring partner and any other concerned partners. If necessary, the clearance centre head and executive partner Chris Perrin will be brought in.

The firm takes into account conflicts rules for the jurisdiction where the work is to be done, where the client is based, and where the referring lawyer is qualified.

Slaughter and May’s controls against conflicts of interest have been in place for “years and years”, according to practice partner David Frank.

When instructions are received, the partner concerned inputs information on the case into a computerised database. An automatic search is then carried out to check for potential conflicts. In addition, Slaughters’ central information services team carries out a search on a physical checklist.

If difficult issues are thrown up by the electronic or physical searches, the partners concerned will discuss the case, bringing in, as necessary, the heads of relevant practice streams, senior partner Tim Clark, and Frank.
Around one case every three months goes this far out of hundreds of searches.

Slaughters says it is confident that the system, which has been in operation for around 20 years, is serving the firm well.

Linklaters’ conflicts checking group is part of the law and compliance team, headed by Donald Williams. Based in London, the office is staffed by 25 people – many of whom are lawyers – around the clock.

Linklaters partners fill in an electronic form with the details of a new case. This is then sent to the conflicts-checking team, which searches the firm’s global back office system for any potential conflicts. An escalation procedure, which rises to firm management via divisional and country heads if necessary, is in place to resolve any issues.

Because the database is global, no matter in any country can be initiated until the conflicts team has signed it off.

The current computer system has been active since May 2003 and is being refined constantly, with an update expected shortly.

A team of around 20 people work on Freshfields bruckhaus Deringer’s conflict checking system.

This includes people who run the database as well as people who make judgements on a conflict issue.

The system is completely ring-fenced and only partners can make requests for information.

If cases are confidential they can only be viewed by specified members of the firm. If a person is seeking to open a new matter, but cannot view all the documents, it is referred to people who are not involved in the new instruction.

Those that make the judgement call can include members of the management team – such as chief executive Hugh Crisp – practice group leaders and leaders of departments. A discussion will take place and a decision will then be
given to go ahead or not.