You might think you’re home and dry once you start your training contract, but there are a heap of ways you could still mess up your career. Here are a few examples of lawyers behaving badly – some who faced worse punishments than others.

Lawyers behaving badly

Seeing as it takes at least six long years of hard graft to land a training contract, you might think that once you’ve landed one, you can sit back and relax.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A career in law is a lifelong learning process so it is important to put the same amount of effort into your training contract as you did in securing one in the first place. After all, a firm is under no obligation to keep you on after qualification, so why give it an excuse to show you the door?

With this in mind, here are some of the biggest lawyer controversies of the last few years so you can avoid making the same mistakes yourselves.

Stay on the right side of the law

It is difficult to believe, but the UK’s largest-ever art theft involved solicitors and a former partner of a leading Scottish law firm. In October 2007, the police raided the Glasgow office of HBJ Gateley Wareing while looking for a £30m stolen Leonardo da Vinci painting, arrested former partner Calum Jones and seized the 50.8×35.5cm artwork known as the Madonna with the Yarnwinder.

The painting was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle, the Scottish home of the late Duke Buccleuch, in August 2003. Two men posing as tourists stole the painting from its wall-mountings, overpowering a female guide. The duke, who died a month before the police raid, reportedly received an insurance payout in the region of £3m.

One of the other lawyers involved in the theft, Marshall Ronald, had his firm closed down and is being investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Ronald appeared in court in September, alongside Jones and fellow HBJ partner David Boyce, who has also left the firm. It is understood that Ronald did not enter a plea, although Jones and Boyce have pleaded not guilty to attempting to extort money. It is alleged that the £30m painting would not be returned unless £2m was deposited in a client account at Marshalls and a further £2.25m into a Swiss bank account.

Don’t fall out with the SRA

It was one of the biggest legal stories of 2007. Greedy lawyers were allegedly cashing in to the tune of £1bn by handling claims for sick miners through the British Coal compensation scheme.

As first revealed by The Lawyer (9 April 2007), 30 firms shared a pot of £800m for processing claims in relation to respiratory disease and vibration white finger. One lawyer to benefit was Jim Beresford, senior partner at Beresfords Solicitors, who at one point emerged as the UK’s richest lawyer, taking home £16.8m in just 12 months.

So serious were the allegations that then Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to launch an inquiry into the scandal. Following the revelations, the SRA launched more than 50 investigations and referred 17 law firms to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT). Beresford faced the SRA at the SDT and was struck off for misconduct.

The Government had received more than 760,000 claims from coalminers and families who lost their loved ones from chronic illnesses due to British Coals lack of safety standards since the 1970s. It awarded more than 3.4bn in compensation, with the total rising to more than £4.2bn once legal fees are included. Almost a fifth of the money paid out from the £7.5bn compensation scheme was given to firms for handling the coalminers claims at an average fee of £2,125 per case.

The High Court ruled that firms that profited from handling miners compensation claims would have to pay back tens of millions of pounds to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Watch what you put in emails

We’re not just talking about client confidentiality here. The legendary story of PR consultant Claire Swire and Bradley Chait, a lawyer at Norton Rose, still strikes fear into the hearts of right-minded email-users inside and outside the profession.

At 3.53pm on Thursday 7 December 2000, Swire sent two jokes to 10 friends, including Chait. It involved a smutty joke about a man robbing a sperm bank and ended up with Swire recalling how much she had enjoyed performing a certain sex act on Chait. The charming Chait forwarded the email to four fellow lawyers, adding: “Now that’s a nice compliment from a lass, isn’t it?”

Within minutes the message had appeared on the screens of other City law firms and was then forwarded across the world. It is estimated that over the next couple of days around 20 million people received the email and the story even made the front pages of several national newspapers.

Seventeen years later, Googling Claire Swire or Bradley Chait still brings up the reports on that ill-fated email. The duo have no virtually no other online presence (though a little research reveals Chait works for a German company now; the whereabouts of Swire is unknown).

Don’t try to be the Archbishop of Banterbury

Plenty of avoidable embarrassment within law firms has been caused from LADS giving it the BANTER and Chait is just one example. The macho culture still prevails in some parts of the Square Mile so perhaps it’s no surprise that the next example involves not just a trainee lawyer but also two City brokers.

The trainee in question was Shearman & Sterling’s Henry England, and he made the headlines when a private joke email between him and three friends, which detailed “tour rules” for an upcoming holiday, was leaked and went viral.

The memo listed profiles of the four members – who dubbed themselves the “G4” because of the group’s “density of oil and its capability to dominate social, political and economical spheres” – as well as their rules for a forthcoming holiday to Dubai to watch the Rugby 7s. Rules included “mentioning parents’ salaries once a day” and compulsory chants “about your surrounding environment, being oily and how rich we are”, as well as rules of a sexual nature.

Shearman said it took “appropriate action”, though it declined to say what that action was. Like Chait and Swire, England is now hard to find online and does not appear to be a lawyer any more – a reminder of how a moment’s nonsense can affect your whole future.

Don’t insult your client

Dear Taffy Bastard: the opening line of a letter from solicitor Edward Newfield of Faversham, since struck off, to one of his clients.

Apparently, so obnoxious was the solicitor that he prompted magistrates to walk out in the middle of one of his cases.

In 1999 Newfield admitted six allegations of conduct unbefitting for a solicitor, and the SDT considered a string of abusive letters he had written. We haven’t the slightest interest in whether your client is funded by little green men from Mars, he told another unfortunate client.

Remember, it is generally not a good idea to badmouth your client as it tends not to enhance the solicitor-client relationship.

Don’t fall out with your secretary

After solicitor-client relationships, the most important relationship is that between a lawyer and their secretary. Indeed, we think it wise never to upset a legal secretary, as former Baker McKenzie commercial senior associate Richard Phillips learnt after a row with secretary Jenny Amner concerning a pair of trousers soiled by tomato ketchup and a £4 dry-cleaning bill.

Phillips emailed Amner on 25 May 2005 to ask for £4 to cover the cost of cleaning his trousers after she spilt ketchup on him at lunch. “If you could let me have the cash today, that would be much appreciated,” he added. Amner replied: “With reference to the email below, I must apologise for not getting back to you straight away, but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.”

In time-honoured fashion, news of the messy dispute leaked out to thousands of lawyers and legal market professionals via email. It reached the front page of Metro by the end of the week.

Know how to handle your drink

Ah, more ladness badness. The general public resents “fat-cat” lawyers at the best of times so if you’re lucky enough to have landed a position being paid upwards of £40,000 just to get trained, it’s best to show some modesty and decorum. And if modesty and decorum isn’t your thing, at least have the self-restraint to do your boasting in private.

Alas, a Clifford Chance trainee who – fortunately for him – remains anonymous failed on this score when he was video-interviewed on a drunken night out in 2013 by Oxford student paper Cherwell and opined that his job entailed, well…

Trainee: “I’m a City lad and I fucking love the ladness. I love the City.”

Interviewer: “The ladness?”

Trainee: “I love the ladness and I love the City, so I’m basically a perfect City lad.”

Interviewer: “What is the ladness?”

Trainee: “The ladness is just basically fucking people over for money.”

Interviewer: “Fucking people over for money?”

Trainee: “Yeah.”

Needless to say, “fucking people over for money” does not feature in Clifford Chance’s core values statement and the firm took a dim view of the trainee’s comments, saying: “The comments made are inappropriate and they are at odds with our principles and the professional standards we espouse as a firm. One of our trainee lawyers is the subject of our formal disciplinary procedures which may result in termination of the training contract with the firm.”

The trainee’s eventual fate is unknown, but he did elicit some sympathy from the profession with commenters that “a bad attempt to be funny by a drunk trainee in the early hours of the morning” should not be a sackable offence and that whoever “grassed him up” was the real villain.

Be careful when talking politics

Plenty of lawyers are politically engaged and Lawyer 2B has reported on the likes of Mairi McAllan, Fraser Galloway and Jonathan Reynolds, all upstanding and respectable trainees who have stood for Parliament in the last few years.

But if “never discuss politics or religion” is a good rule for dinner parties, it’s also a good rule of thumb for junior employees of multinational corporations, especially if your political and religious views might be deemed radical in any way.

Unfortunately, (another) Clifford Chance trainee ignored this rule in 2015. Aysh Chaudhry proclaimed that the attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo would not have occurred had it not been for “the fact that the kuffar [an offensive term for non-Muslims] had gone to our lands and killed our people and raped and pillaged our resources”.

Displaying an impressive lack of judgment, he did so in a 20-minute rant on YouTube. An anonymous source – presumably a concerned colleague – promptly tipped off its existence to the legal press and the rest is history. The video was swiftly removed but the damage was done and before he knew it Chaudhry was national news.

Clifford Chance evidently forgave Chaudhry: he was retained on qualification and still works for the firm, in its Madrid office.

Avoid email howlers

Everyone’s been there. You press send, the message goes and your hands make their way to your head. Sometimes, as in the case of Baker McKenzie ketchup trousers man Richard Phillips, Shearman banter lad Daniel England or Norton Rose’s Bradley Chait, the results are a tad more public than most. But even when the slip does not make the papers, the results can be painful.

In the case of Ashurst it was not a ketchup-stained trouser leg or the private fumblings of soon-to-be-ex-lovers that was the subject. It was a topic closer to the core of any lawyers being: the bill. Rather embarrassingly for the City firm, the rogue message, intended for the lawyers working on the deal, found its way to the client.

Ashurst was believed to have quoted dotcom Whereonearth £175,000 for the job of advising it on its sale to Yahoo!. The eventual bill was closer to £400,000. All would no doubt have been fine for Ashurst if not for the costly slip of a finger sending an email to the client saying that they never thought they could do the deal for £175,000 in the first place. Oops.

Be organised

It was a cold, blustery, autumnal evening and Jim, a 25-year-old trainee solicitor, was making his way down Chancery Lane towards the High Court on his last job of the day. Until this moment his three-week-old legal career at a prestigious City firm was going swimmingly. That was until a gust of wind caught a single piece of paper and detached it from his file.

The time was 4.30pm, the offending item was a cheque for payment into court in connection with a large commercial dispute and it was the last day the payment could be made. The cheque disappeared on the wind never to be seen again.

Absolutely horrendous, recalls a partner at the firm. Whenever anyone has ever mentioned that trainee’s name they always remembered the story.

The lesson to be learnt from Jim’s sorry tale is to always to carry your papers in a briefcase.

Don’t fall in love with your client

“My romance with a jailed wife-killer, by trainee lawyer,” ran the Daily Mail headline in November 2003. You might think your latest client compares favourably with Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, but it is wise to concentrate on the job in hand.

The trainee solicitor featured in the Daily Mail had bombarded wife-killer Robert Marshall with gifts, cash and cards after her firm was hired to handle his legal affairs. The SDT heard that their love blossomed during 20 prison visits over 13 months. On a technical note, the SDT noted that the 28-year-old lawyer also abused the rules of legal privilege by marking her letters to Marshall confidential to avoid them being opened.

It was the killer who eventually complained to the firm that the lawyer had taken advantage of him when he was extremely vulnerable. He is presently serving a life sentence.

Interestingly, the lawyer was not struck off and she subsequently joined another firm. The tribunal chairman told her: “If we had before us a solicitor of rather more experience and a greater age, we would have taken a different view.”

Lawyers behaving badly: learning the hard way

All of the above are admittedly extreme examples of solicitor screw-ups. So we asked trainees for advice on the dos and don’ts when embarking on a training contract.

The don’ts

  • Never interrupt a conversation with your supervisor to take a call on your mobile.
  • Don’t listen to your iPod at work.
  • Don’t be late for court.
  • Don’t misuse your corporate credit card.
  • Never pad your timesheet.
  • Never use the reply to all facility on emails without checking who is on the list.
  • Don’t sleep with your secretary within the first week of the job (or probably ever).
  • Don’t use text message language in business communications.
  • Don’t talk about your clients case on a train and don’t leave papers on the train.
  • Don’t be selfish and arrogant.

The dos

  • Treat support staff with the same respect as lawyers.
  • Learn to say no and to ask for help.
  • Pay good attention to detail.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Be punctual at all times.
  • Carry a notepad with you at all times.
  • Be proactive about sourcing work: if your workload is lighter than normal, wander down the corridor and ask if anyone needs your help.
  • Learn how to use your dictaphone – it’s much faster than typing.