Three more senior Freshfields partners in firing line over Law Society conflicts probe

The Law Society has widened its investigation into Freshfields partner Barry O’Brien’s role on the M&S bid to include three other senior figures at the magic circle firm, it has emerged.

It is understood that the Society has also been investigating chief executive Hugh Crisp, former corporate head Gavin Darlington and corporate head Tim Jones.

It is thought to be the first time a chief executive of a major City law firm has become embroiled into such a high-profile investigation.

All four Freshfields partners are alleged to have accepted instructions from Philip Green’s Revival vehicle while in possession of confidential information from M&S. They are also alleged to have failed to carry out proper conflict checks.

In June 2004 Freshfields was thrown off the £9bn bid. M&S, advised by Slaughter and May, successfully argued that the fact that the magic circle firm had advised on George Davis’ contract with the retailer was material to the bid and was therefore a conflict.

Although there is no complainant in the M&S matter, the Law Society has the right to initiate investigations itself. It is thought that any decision whether or not to refer the issue to the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal will now not take place until the new year.

Freshfields is understood to be vigorously contesting the allegations.

Freshfields is not the only magic circle firm being pursued by the Law Society on conflicts. The society is also continuing to investigate Allen & Overy (A&O)’s role on the Safeway bid, nearly two and a half years after a complaint was first made.

The alleged Safeway conflict – first revealed in The Lawyer in January 2003 – came about when A&O advised ABN Amro, financier to bidder WM Morrison, at the same time it was advising Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, financial adviser to rival bidder Wal-Mart.