A former DLA Piper partner who panicked and faked a signature has been suspended from practice for a year.

Robert Arnison, who headed up the firm’s Manchester real estate practice at the time, was instructed on the purchase of a £13.5m property in Chelsea for which the buyers, ‘Mr and Mrs B’, had arranged a £6m mortgage.

Arnison sent his clients the completion documents to sign and asked his PA to confirm that they’d been correctly executed when they were returned, which she did.

But after he sent them across, the bank's lawyer, Gary Shepherd, emailed Arnison with the dread words, “Robert, Just tried to call you. The legal charge isn’t correctly executed”.

The witness had not signed the mortgage deed, and Arnison, “suffering from anxiety and in panic”, and under pressure from his "particularly demanding" client, “applied a squiggle where the signature should have been”.

He then told Shepherd that everything was in hand, and within 25 minutes provided a copy of the executed document.

Unfortunately the signature he’d quickly scribbled did not match the witness’s signature on the other documents. 

When the bank flagged the discrepancy with the purchasers, Arnison's client appears to have suggested that the newly executed mortgage deed had been witnessed by a removal man.

“Robert, Can I trouble you to call me”, wrote Shepherd.

After speaking with the bank's lawyer, Arnison procured a version of the deed which had been correctly executed by the correct witness, for real.

In a fit of honesty, once the transaction was completed Arnison confessed to DLA Piper’s relationship partner, Jonathan Watkins, that he had initially faked the witness’s signature. They agreed to report it to the UK Managing Partner, Liam Cowell, and it was then raised with the firm’s General Counsel.

DLA Piper removed Arnison’s equity status pending the outcome of the SRA’s investigation, but even before the firm reported its findings to the regulator in May 2020, he had ceased to be a partner, and was working as a consultant instead.  

Admitting all the allegations against him, Arnison told the SDT in mitigation that he had been working “extremely hard and, as he now understands, excessively hard”, particularly after a significant chunk of his team left the firm in 2013.

He typically worked 70 hour weeks and on Sundays and holidays. But he made “no criticism of the firm in this respect”, nor of his PA, explaining that he “plainly he took too much upon himself" and "was on the verge of burnout. Something had to give”.

The tribunal agreed that the former partner's panicked scribble was “a classic ‘moment of madness’” which was “caused in large part by overwork for a period of about 10 years”. 

As well as being suspended for a year, Arnison agreed to pay costs to the SRA of £17,250.

A DLA Piper spokesperson said, “We are aware of the SRA’s decision to suspend our former partner, Robert Arnison, following misconduct which was identified and reported jointly to the regulator”.

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Anonymous 14 July 23 09:42

Common sense from the SRA in showing clemency to a poor, naive, vulnerable head of department equity partner.

If it was someone who truly should have known better and could influence others such as a trainee or NQ then they'd have had no choice but to strike them off. 

Anon 14 July 23 10:03

This is outrageous because if a junior had done this, it would be strike off with no exception.

The tribunal would cite that case about trust to ends of the earth , etc etc 

In fact, I think there is exact precedent for it.

Clear who the regulator will protect. 

Anon 14 July 23 10:06

Nice chap with nice excuses and nice support = ruffle of the hair and a ‘don’t be a naughty boy’ reprimand.

Junior lawyer, probably being bullied, overworked and underpaid, with no support = struck off.

Anonymous 14 July 23 10:10

I have had dealings with Robert- a good man 

One moment of madness (that if we are honest caused no harm to anybody) should not define a career.

Some form of punishment is still required and the suspension handed out here feels fair to me. 

Conflicts 14 July 23 10:34

The SRA usually deal with these cases involving big city firms largely through their designated “relationship manager” for that firm. That is an individual who deals with that firm over a number of years for other matters wholly unrelated to conduct issues, such as ordinary compliance and reporting unrelated to conduct. The job description as the SRA describes it is to “develop relationships with and enhance engagement with the city…” Every major London based city firm will have such a contact in the SRA. As the title suggests, their is a “relationship” in place and this obviously can obviously influence the action the SRA then decide to take when conduct issues do arise. Many cases get successfully swept under the carpet or have “agreed outcomes”  between the SRA and that firm, at least where a senior person from that firm is involved in alleged misconduct. I have seen all this first hand from my previous time working in a firm focussed on malpractice and regulatory investigations. 

The smaller firms and regional firms do not have these “relationships” with the SRA. 

Go figure.



Anonymous 14 July 23 13:32

Robert is a good man and one of the better partners I've worked under. He is someone who displayed the kind of care and empathy so rarely shown by commercial law firm partners towards their associates. It is not a surprise that something went wrong, he was always working and was intricately involved in the running of the Manchester office, often balancing a number of different roles around his extremely heavy billable workload. 

I hope he is getting the support he needs and can return to the profession if he so wishes. This mistake aside, he was a diligent and highly capable lawyer.

This is a great example of the regional office "work life balance" myth that DLA, AG and other similar firms use to lure in trainees. It is no wonder their ability to keep hold of junior talent is waning. 

Defund the Sra 14 July 23 13:34

The lesson once again is that if you're a partner that makes a mistake because you're overworked, you get a slap on the wrist. If you're a lowly trainee or associate however, the SRA will drag your name through the mud and castrates you. No wonder the profession largely thinks the SRA are not fit for purpose.

Office Drone 14 July 23 13:51

The SRA clearly takes its lead from the Tories - one rule for the wealthy, connected and well-credentialed, one for the rest of the peasantry. The finest traditions of English law on display with that ruling...

I agree with the comments above - a junior lawyer would not have found any mercy despite being overworked, bullied, confused etc. - isn't the idea that the more experienced and senior you are, the higher the standards applied to you should be? 

This ruling sets a bad precedent.

Anon 14 July 23 13:54

Conflicts @ 1034 is exactly right. I have seen all this first hand and the SRA do not seem to “get” what the problem is when they designate individuals who may have existing albeit professional relationships with particular firms to get involved in allegations of misconduct by senior individuals in that firm. It can very much look like a stitch up and where a small group of malpractice focussed firms who do the rounds of the city firms are also part of the cosy group. The way it works is that the firm tells the SRA there is “nothing to see here” but says they will get an “independent” firm to investigate and the SRA agrees to hold off investigating. One of those malpractice firms (there are three main ones) that make lots of money from these investigations then undertakes an “independent analysis”  and reports to the SRA that indeed there is nothing to see, which could involve largely cutting and pasting the “conclusions” of the firm and then concurring with these. It is a scandal but the SRA are generally not savvy enough to see they are being made fools of. It happens a lot. 

But god help the panicked overworked junior who makes an innocent mistake and comes clean. They are the ones thrown under the bus. 

Bigger picture? 14 July 23 15:51

While the SRA might be criticised, and while the partner should be criticised, is there something telling in the fact that that a clearly senior equity partner, who managed the office, is so over worked to the point of burnout and forgery but didn’t have the adequate support needed to prevent that (or just run his practice)? Could they not afford another SA or two to ease his burden? Is Real Estate that rarified that lawyers are hard to come by? I think it says more about the short term economic view of most big firms. I speak from my own experience. By contrast the first story on ROF today is about Sir Nigel (ex DLA Chairman or whatever for those who don’t know) finally realising his dreams of selling out to some Tory hedge fund like it’s 1986 and making himself some phat wedge along the way and, oh, maybe a little something for the other partners.  

Anonymous 14 July 23 16:20

Echo Anon at 13:32 - Rob is genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with and it’s a real shame to see this.

Without taking anything away from that fact, I’m not clear on the difference between his actions meriting a suspension and those of more junior solicitors who have been struck off for less - why throw the book at the juniors who have even less control over their workload and even less scope to push back on a “particularly demanding client”?

The toffs and the toughs 14 July 23 17:17

Dishonesty is a striking off offence. I reported one of my colleagues to the compliance officer for forging my signature on a bank transfer letter (he said I just sign anything put under my nose so it didn't matter). Head of compliance said he had no option, but to refer him to the SRA. No action taken, but he was lucky - it's really, really simple - your signature is yours and not anyone else's.

Anon 14 July 23 17:57

That is almost but not quite correct , Toffs n toughs. You can actually authorise someone to sign a document on your behalf. Of course if that authority is not there, then it may be forgery. The grey area is that as a matter of law, there can sometimes be an implied authority to sign a document on abhor of someone else or even without that implied authority, there can be a later ratification of a signature that had no authority to be given when it was first made. None of that is forgery. Neither is a mistake. 

JustSaying 14 July 23 18:07

... but it was all the fault of the secretary wasn't it?  She confirmed that everything was correctly executed ....  he was only forced to forge the signature because she hadn't done her job properly!   

Henry Mills 14 July 23 18:10

How this was dealt with by way of an agreed outcome is beyond me. Dishonesty needs to be tested by the tribunal so how 2 tribunals looked at the agreed outcome and didn't refuse to ratify it needs looking at. 

He forged a signature. He should know better. The fact he admitted to it is irrelevant. I don't know what health issues he had but the fact he was busy and stressed means nothing. We all are. 

That poor girl Claire Matthews had a moment of madness and ended up trying to kill herself. Where was the clemency there? 

The whole thing stinks. Even the wording of the AO is a piss take. 

I was accused of dishonesty by the SRA. We attempted to get a AO ratified as the SRA dropped the dishonesty at the 11th hour. They told the tribunal who were invited to ratify the AO they were dropping it because it was horse crap but the tribunal ignored that and refused to ratify it because they felt that, because dishonesty had been alleged, it had to be tried. 

The fact that this was settled by way of AO is mind boggling. 

Reminds me 14 July 23 19:55

That reminds me, Just Saying @ 1807, of an “incident” in my former firm (MC, Asian office). A partner had caught the Asian management group doctoring long completed appraisal reports of partners and then passing those doctored reports to the equity review group in London to help justify their own recommendations of equity for those “out of favour” partners. The management group were caught red handed but somehow blamed the “secretary” saying she had sent out the wrong “drafts”. It was shocking and obviously the worse type of dishonesty (stabbing their own partners in the back through forging fake reports!), but they got away with it. The rumour was the firm “self reported” but with a false report of why happened and had silenced the obvious witness who knew the story with an “enormous” pay out. ROF reported on it a while ago.

Client of DLA 14 July 23 20:49

The story here is very senior solicitor in massive firm fraudulently forges signature and doesn't get struck off.

When I was younger, a partner in a smaller firm forged a signature and his feet didn't touch the ground.  I've been asked to resign sworn documents when they've been typed up, it's a no from me.  Our profession works on probity. This is a joke decision.

I don't care about all the "he's a great bloke" comments.  What he did was fraud.  

Sad but it's still forgery 14 July 23 21:52

Even if a decent guy, it's hard to see this as a minor lapse.

Many lawyers have worked under extreme pressure without doing things like this. 

Parsnip 15 July 23 07:44

If you are manager of the office you have the power to deal with being overworked and you are a major beneficiary of not having out in place the correct support.  The mismanagement of the business should have been considered an aggravating factor not a mitigating one. 

JustSaying 15 July 23 17:18

Yes That Reminds me @ 19:55 - I was trying to be ironic!  I was surprised they were not blaming it on the secretary.  Like you, I know of a similar incident at a MC form in the late 80s involving instructions to counsel + attachments.  Counsel found that a form had not been completed and this impacted a court deadline so apologies had to be made to a judge.  Big embarrassment.  The secretary was called into a meeting by HR who had a document drawn up for her to sign whereby she admitted to the oversight!  Their reasoning was that it was a big client and they did not want this on the fee earner's record - whereas for a mere secretary, who would expect anything else!  

She was really upset but signed the document.  How they got her to do that I have no idea.  But they certainly picked on the right one because there are many I know who would not have signed.  It got me wondering if the main reason for having secretaries was simply to have someone to blame.  

That fee earner is now an esteemed partner.  

Henry Mills 16 July 23 12:09

Decisions like this totally undermine young lawyers’ faith in the system and our regulator. Their decision making is so inconsistent and arbitrary. Dishonesty is a strike off, unless there r exceptional circumstances. We don’t know what they r so need to be careful before criticising the tribunal so much. However, the message this gives to younger lawyers (comparing this clemency to Claire Matthew’s treatment) is horrific. 

How this was settled by a AO is something the SDT need to explain. Even if there r exceptional circumstances, it needs to be tested by a tribunal hearing and not by cosy agreed outcome like this. 

junior lawyers need to feel they will be looked after by law firms and this shit show does the exact opposite. 

Henry Mills 16 July 23 16:52

I think this sends a terrible message to junior lawyers. It stinks of cronyism and partners at big firms getting favourable treatment. Why does this guy get away with forging a signature? 

Whilst Claire Matthews did finally get exonerated, it took years and caused her untold stress. This guy didn’t even have to go through the ordeal of a tribunal, despite forging a signature and then making a statement to a fellow lawyer that the document in question had been signed and witnessed correctly. 

A finding of dishonesty is a strike out unless there are exceptional circumstances. Apparently there were on this occasion but the circumstances were not tested at a tribunal but behind closed doors. One tribunal knocked it back when asked to ratify the AO. But he even got the luxury of being able to go to another tribunal to ratify an amended proposal. 

The fact the guy worked hard is a pathetic justification. He was head of department who should know a lot better but seemingly couldn’t cope with a demanding client. 

This decision is a total piss take and the SRA and SDT should be asked to justify their decision that there were exceptional circumstances and why they thought this could be dealt with by AO and not a tribunal. I would also like to know how they can justify striking Claire Matthew off originally but not this guy. She was a junior lawyer who made a big mistake but clearly working in a toxic environment where she felt she couldn’t admit to making a mistake. 

In the light of this decision why would anyone want to be a lawyer with a regulator like this? 


Disband the SRA 17 July 23 12:56

Does SRA stand for Shit Random Arbiter?

It should.  Now we know that you can be a fraudster and still be a solicitor.  
It is the random and inconsistent approach which causes most offence.

Time to wind up the SRA and bring in something better. 

Anon 18 July 23 10:36

The SRA are actually scared of the major firms and allow themselves to be manipulated and bullied by them. It is not unusual to see a junior SRA officer up against a senior and experienced group from the firm accused of malpractice and an external investigation law firm and possibly senior counsel too - all telling the SRA there are no conduct issues following their own alleged investigations.

And the major firms are happy to throw the juniors under the bus when there is misconduct but will pull out all the stops to protect the seniors especially if they are part of management. There are many examples of this although most of them you will never hear about because they are dealt with before they get to the stage when the SRA would be required to publish their findings and decisions. 

It really is a scandal and has been going on for years. The disparity between the treatment of juniors and seniors in the industry is very real, with seniors getting away with the type of conduct that juniors have been struck off for. This is notwithstanding that by the SRA’s own guidelines, the standards set for seniors are supposedly higher than for those who are new to the industry. As a previous poster mentioned, it is made worse by the fact that the SRA will get “relationship managers” from the SRA who are responsible for the “relationship” with a firm under investigation, involved in making decisions. 

i don’t know what can be done to change the SRA but it needs top down reform. 


Thematic Review 19 July 23 05:55

Surely it must be time for another SRA thematic review.  The much loved SRA thematic review might look into why a partner can get away with fraud and dishonesty whilst trainee and junior solicitors are automatically struck off for less serious indiscretions.  
It could look into the cosy relationship between the SRA and the top brass at firms with the resources to fight back.  
It might look at why there is so much inconsistency and why the SRA’s random decisions and actions frequently bring the profession into disrepute.

It might finally ask “what is the point of the SRA” and why “is it so hated and maligned by those who are unfortunate enough to be regulated by it?”

Anonymous 20 July 23 07:41

Imagine he'd done something terrible like had consensual sex. He would have been flayed alive and struck off.

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