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Fieldfisher has been heavily criticised by a QC for its role in a cataclysmic power struggle which engulfed the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The conduct of Matthew Lohn, a partner in Fieldfisher's regulatory practice and its former Senior Partner, was raised in an independent review conducted by Alison Levitt QC. 

Her findings have resulted in the resignation of RICS's CEO, its President, the Chair of its Management Board, and the Chair of its overarching Governing Council.

In 2018, one of the Managing Board's non-Executives, solicitor Simon Hardwick, queried a small announcement in the quarterly meeting agenda which noted that the RICS overdraft facility had been extended from £4 million to £7 million as a result of "inaccurate cashflow forecasting". (One of the reasons was "an apparently unexpected £400,000 discretionary bonus paid to the CEO").

A few months later Hardwick learned an audit had been carried out which concluded that "no assurance" could be given as to RICS's internal finance controls, but it had not been disclosed to either the non-Executives or RICS's Governing Council.

When Hardwick flagged that the audit's findings were a serious problem and that its suppression by the Executives represented a failure in governance which needed to be addressed, the Executive team commissioned RICS's General Counsel to produce a review.

Her investigation concluded that there had been no failure of governance and exonerated the Executives, and in November 2019 Hardwick and three other non-Executives who shared his concerns were fired.

When they threatened to take legal action, the Executive team came under pressure from the Governing Council and commissioned Levitt, of 2 Hare Court, to investigate.

Levitt had almost finished her 467 page report in June this year when Fieldfisher belatedly disclosed its file on the matter, which Levitt had been requesting for months.

"Reading it completely changed this report from the one I had been going to write", said Levitt. 

She had been led to believe that Fieldfisher's involvement in the debacle was minimal, but its file was huge. 

RICS's General Counsel trained under Lohn at Fieldfisher and worked in his team for almost 16 years before taking the RICS role in 2018. It turned out she was still very dependent on her old supervisor. Lohn had, unbenownst to the non-Executives or Levitt, worked extensively with the GC to ghostwrite her review and steer the termination of the non-Executives.

But the GC had not divulged any of that in her interview with Levitt. "Knowing what I now know, I am very surprised that she was not candid with me about their involvement", said Levitt.

The Governing Council had no idea either, even though it was RICS (not the Executive) which was Fieldfisher’s client, and even though Fieldfisher charged RICS £118,677 in a single three month period for advising solely on the issues surrounding the four non-Executives.

Lohn approved of keeping Fieldfisher's involvement secret from the majority of RICS, telling the GC, "No need to explain external resource". Levitt said his attitude was "inexplicable".

She found that Fieldfisher's approach was not just clandestine, but partisan, and that from the beginning it had sided with the Executives against the four non-Executives "without any objective analysis of the true merits of the situation". 

Fieldfisher’s priority was that there should be no threat to or criticism of the CEO or the COO, said Levitt.

Proof of its bias included a Fieldfisher document setting out the review's conclusions, which had been drafted before the review's terms of reference had even been finalised. 

Records revealed how the GC spoke disparagingly of the non-Executives to Lohn, calling one "not bright enough" and another a "sneaky weasel". But the pair also criticised the Executives for their actions, which Levitt said represented a "private acknowledgement" that they knew their whitewash didn't reflect reality. 

The QC said she wanted to ask Lohn why he didn't bother to seek out the views of the non-Executives, but despite initially agreeing to be interviewed, he "then changed his mind", telling the QC that "the documents speak for themselves". 

"I agree", said Levitt, taking the prize for Most Elegant Evisceration of a Solicitor. 

The COO once stopped a board meeting by bursting into tears when she was asked a question about the audit which she felt called her integrity into question, and when she proposed firing the non-Executives, Lohn embraced the idea.

His eagerness to boot the non-Executives, particularly Hardwick, extended to haranguing an Executive who appeared keener to have a dialogue. 

"In the nicest way you have been incredibly indulgent to him", said Lohn, who demanded of his tame GC, "What is the reason for the delay?"

Fieldfisher Head of Employment Richard Kenyon was similarly predisposed to a good sacking. When the non-Executives ended a conciliatory letter by signing off, "we continue to have confidence in the capabilities of our chair, CEO and COO", his interpretation was that it was "dripping in insincerity".

Kenyon advised that the non-Executives could be terminated on one month's notice, but never flagged the chilling effect such an action would have on the other non-Executives or the "immense" reputational damage the move could (and did) inflict on RICS. His advice "was wrong in every respect", said Levitt.

Matters came to a head in an "extraordinary" meeting where Lohn advised the CEO and COO to force the RICS President's hand by threatening to resign unless the non-Executives were fired.

His contribution, "if not amounting to a formal conflict of interest in the regulatory sense" was "deeply unwise", and parts "were not in the interests of Fieldfisher’s client", said Levitt.

In a withering aside, the QC noted that, "With masterly lack of foresight, he had predicted that 'People will have forgotten about this by November'".

Instead, news of the cull leaked to various outlets and Fieldfisher duly threatened them all with legal action.

But the problem grew more absurd when members of the former Governing Council of RICS criticised the actions of the Executives, and Fieldfisher instructed another firm to threaten them late at night with defamation proceedings, too.

"The members of RICS will be very surprised to learn that, in effect, their subscriptions were being used for their external advisers to use a second law firm to send a threatening letter to other members of the Institution", Levitt said.

The members were told to respond by 10am the next morning. There was "literally no prospect of all these surveyors being able to obtain legal advice within the time frame", said Levitt, who called Fieldfisher's "antagonistic, oppressive, and unnecessary" conduct "a bullying tactic" which was "wholly unjustifiable"  and "served RICS badly".

Levitt concluded that RICS's General Counsel should not have had a pre-existing relationship with the firm, and that RICS should drop Fieldfisher, which had "more than one potential conflict of interest which they appear either to have ignored or misjudged".

Levitt said it was not for her to say whether Lohn's conduct merited the attention of the regulator. If it does, it will be the second time that perceived conflicts of interest have brought him to the SRA's attention. Lohn was investigated in 2017 for his dual role as both an adjudicator at British Horseracing Authority tribunals and a paid legal advisor of the BHA, which ended with similarly calamitous results.

RollOnFriday is confident he'll receive fair treatment from the SRA. Last time around the regulator dropped its investigation into Lohn just before it accepted his bid to add Fieldfisher to its external panel. At the time, its Executive Director of Case Direction was Juliet Oliver. In a stunning coincidence, before joining the SRA she spent many years working in...Fieldfisher's regulatory practice, under one Matthew Lohn. She is now the SRA's General Counsel.

An SRA spokesperson said, "We are aware of the issue and will gather all relevant evidence before deciding on any next steps", and confirmed that its GC team would not be involved in any assessment of whether or not to undertake an investigation.

In a statement, Fieldfisher said, "We are disappointed to note that some of the actions of the firm and the partners who were involved in seeking to help RICS, in what was an exceptionally difficult time for the organisation, have been criticised. Fieldfisher is committed to upholding the highest professional standards and believe that our partners did so in the overall context of the events reviewed by Alison Levitt QC". 

The firm declined to say whether it had reported Lohn, Kenyon, or itself to the SRA, or if it was imposing any sanctions on the partners.


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Comments

Paddy Losty 17 September 21 09:26

This doesn’t reflect well on Mr Lohn or Fieldfisher.
 

But my main takeaway is (again) what a joke the SRA is - what are the odds no action is taken here, while junior lawyers get struck off for following orders.

Anonymous 17 September 21 09:43

Splendid article. Fieldfisher really are ****.

Unfortunately I have to agree, sadly, with the conclusion that the SRA will do absolutely nothing. When there is true misconduct, the regulator doesn't get involved.

Je Suis Monty Don l’Autobus 17 September 21 09:58

Further proof - as if any were needed - that neither barristers nor judges should ever, ever be allowed to comment on the reality of how solicitors have to do business.

Anonymous 17 September 21 09:59

Fantastic article. 

I'm glad to work in a boring area of insurance law with poor pay and low targets when I read about these types of antics.

Gobblepig 17 September 21 09:59

This is an absolute scandal. How can this fellow keep on operating in this way with impunity? Is the SRA completely in hoc to him and incapable of even attempting a proper investigation?

Anonymous 17 September 21 10:02

Paddy Losty has it right.

A pure coincidence that Mr Lohn is white and male, as well as being serially exonerated by the SRA.

The papers speak for themselves...

Paul 17 September 21 10:02

A useful reminder that your client is (usually) the organisation and not the person instructing you.

Lord Lester 17 September 21 10:14

Well you know what I think that the BSB are going to have to say about this...

Anonymous 17 September 21 10:23

Fieldfisher should learn the Latin for "sneaky weasel" and then incorporate it into a new logo.

Lohn Ranger 17 September 21 10:31

Pretty sure I have heard this chappy's name mentioned before...

https://www.legalbusiness.co.uk/blogs/fieldfisher-senior-partner-lohn-faces-bias-allegations-over-work-for-british-horseracing-authority/

https://www.rollonfriday.com/news-content/fieldfisher-senior-partner-heart-horseracing-scandal

Sigh 17 September 21 10:53

As we all know, SRA are more interested in troubled junior lawyers who panic under pressure and make foolish mistakes they try and cover up, than calculated manipulative dishonesty and fraud by senior lawyers. 

Nick 17 September 21 10:55

Interesting idea that GCs shouldn't instruct firms that they've previously worked for. That seems to be at odds with general practice at, ooh, almost every in-house department, and would drive a coach and horses through many private practice business plans. Presumably Levitt doesn't accept instructions from the CPS or Mishcons on the same basis?

Also, did i miss it, or why hasn't the RICS GC been named?

 

Fieldfisher forever 17 September 21 11:08

Very unfair report. Clients pay for legal advice and workarounds. Wholly the fault of the execs at RICS

Anonymous 17 September 21 11:32

This is not the first time Lohn has been caught out for this kind of behaviour - Google his name plus British Horseracing Authority. 

Anyone who thinks the SRA is going to do something about this is deluded. The SRA is packed full of Paul Philip's croneys like Juliet Oliver and Fieldfisher (who only got on the SRA's panel after having been on the GMC's panel under Philip's tenure at the GMC). It is very disturbing that a regulator responsible for enforcing e.g. standards of integrity lacks any itself. 

Lawyer 1 17 September 21 11:47

Unfortunately at Fieldfisher the themes of poor client service, high fees, poor quality advice, ignoring conflicts, and the SRA ignoring multiple client complaints is standard throughout the firm. The only shocking thing in the review is that a white male Fieldfisher partner seemed happy here to work with a female! 

The reasonable man 17 September 21 14:42

Any competent corporate lawyer or litigator, faced with a board room bust up, would advise in a nano second that the entity, not any individual[s], is the client, to whom duties are owed, bills are sent/ paid, and who will sue if the lawyer get things wrong.

Yes, instructions are (typically) received from the Executive members, but the above principles are agreed (including with the non Execs) at the outset, and kept firmly in mind by all, throughout. If a conflict emerges, separate advice is required, where if it persists the instructions may need to be terminated. And with a few exceptions, if the bills are paid the lawyers file of papers belongs to the client so the basis in which a lawyer can decline to hand over the file is not understood. 

None of this is complicated.  

I haven’t read the Report, so accept there may be more to it than this. Although it’s hard to see what’s that might be. 

AC Jimbo 17 September 21 15:10

@ Fieldfisher forever 17 September 21 11:08

If you'd read the piece you'd see that FF weren't advising their client, they were advising employees of their client.  There's a major difference.

Anonymous 17 September 21 15:17

Lawyer 1 17 September 21 11:47:

There are very many good lawyers at FF who provide an excellent service at good rates.  They will have been horrified by these reports and by being associated with this shambles.  They will also hope the SRA looks at this very closely and imposes all appropriate penalties.

Anonymous 17 September 21 16:24

"There are very many good lawyers at FF who provide an excellent service at good rates. "

 

Ha ha! Good one Jim!

Almost as good as that one about the Rabbi, the Nun and the Irishman that walked into a bar.

At Fiedfisher indeed... omegalol

Anonymous 20 September 21 10:46

I have nothing against this chap, but due to the manner in which many Fieldfisher litigators treat their opponents, sympathy is unlikely to be forthcoming from others in the industry. 

Neutral litigator 21 September 21 17:48

In response to Anonymous at 10:46 on 20 September

What an odd observation to make. This is an adversarial system. If you're being endlessly forgiving to your opponent in litigation, you're doing it wrong.

Anonymous 21 September 21 20:35

@neutral litigator

It is entirely possible to conduct yourself decently and reasonably while also acting in your client’s interests at all times.

There is a particular style of excitable and hyperbolic litigation which I find particularly tiresome.  It impresses nobody, and in fact usually gives the impression that the lawyer is using aggression to mask a lack of skill or expertise.

Thankfully, I come across fewer and fewer of them ‘in the wild’ these days.  Perhaps it’s a generational thing?

Question Man 22 September 21 16:20

Do we even know that Matthew Lohn is his real name?

Is there proof, real proof, that would stand up in a court of law, that he isn't actually a clockwork simulacrum of a man designed only to infiltrate and discredit FieldFisher in order to make it look like the bastion of the patriarchy that so many already consider it to be?

Is all of this just being reported to the SRA by someone who is jealous of him and his innate sexual magnetism?

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