Burnt out

The tribunal ruled that the firm could have offered more support


A tribunal has ruled that Freeths discriminated against a "burnt out" senior partner who had been diagnosed as "disabled" with mental health issues.

Mike Taplin was managing partner of the firm's Derby office, and had a run of being the firm's top billing equity partner for several years. He frequently racked up 2,600 chargeable hours a year, along with additional hours slogging on business development.

In 2016, a psychologist diagnosed Taplin as being disabled, due to a mixture of anxiety and depression, and said he was "burnt out".

The tribunal said that Taplin was "an extremely hard-working individual who by his own admission loved to work" but "found it difficult to step back.” Freeths had benefited from Taplin's "drive and passion for his work" over the years, which had contributed towards his ill health, said the tribunal.

Taplin took some time off from work. But when he returned to the office, Freeths did not put in place a sufficient plan or adjustments for Taplin, found the tribunal.

The firm failed to assign a designated mentor to support the hard-working partner. Freeths chairman, Colin Flanagan, told Taplin to be "more positive" in the office, a remark that the tribunal deemed to be "grossly insensitive." Flanagan also told Taplin that he had "lost a yard of pace" and said that he should "drop back to midfield" to give the "captaincy" to someone else. 

Freeths failed to pick up on red flags concerning Taplin's "frenetic" behaviour, said the tribunal, because of a lack of understanding and communication about his mental health. And in 2018 the firm suspended the partner after he made a 'joke' at a summer conference, which involved "sexual crudeness, stereotypical racist descriptions" and "mocking of sexual orientation." The comments went against Taplin's "normal behaviour", said the tribunal. Another partner at the conference also made crude comments in his  presentation, but was not suspended.

The tribunal heard that a senior person at the firm had known about the joke in advance, and had emailed a colleague to say it would be a "car crash". There was a "certain expectation of disaster and willingness to let it unfold," said the tribunal.

The tribunal ruled that Freeths' suspension of Taplin was not a "proportionate response" as other "less discriminatory" measures could have been taken. The tribunal found that although the 'joke' was a factor in the firm's disciplinary decision, Taplin's disability was “another reason" which had "a significant influence on the decision to suspend".

“The suspension led to a deterioration in his mental health", said the tribunal, with Taplin reasonably concluding "that his position was untenable". He resigned from the firm in September 2018.

The tribunal found that Taplin's resignation was due to reasons of "unlawful acts of discrimination" by Freeths. A hearing to determine the remedy will follow.

Taplin, now a partner at Gunner Cooke, told RollOnFriday that he had no comment on the outcome of the case "other than to say that the Judgement speaks for itself."

Freeths said in a statement: "While the Tribunal’s principal decision on liability has been issued, the remedy is yet to be determined. The proceedings are therefore still ongoing so it would be inappropriate for us to comment further on the case at this stage."

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Comments

STEP 07 May 21 08:21

I’ve just looked at Freeths STEP replies - worth a look as it puts this judgment into context.  Cheap words for the benefit of clients - reality is very different by the looks of things.  

Eyebrows raised 07 May 21 08:43

I’ve just flicked through the judgment.  Freeths do not come out of this well at all.  The ET appears to have found Freeths witnesses lacked credibility.  We are talking about a law firm here.   Some of the findings look to be pretty serious for the firm and those giving evidence.  I hope the SRA looks into this.  

Anonymous 07 May 21 09:19

2600 chargeable hours is absolutely bonkers. I was at a psychotic US firm and they demanded "only" 2000 chargeable hours (still equivalent to about 10 hours every working day ffs).

And Freeths is a provincial, multi-office, low deal value, mid-tier plodder. Why HR would not flag this level of work as a source of concern is beyond me. If the firm cares about its staff at all, over-working is more of a concern than under-working.

Anonymous 07 May 21 09:54

I don’t think I have ever seen a judgment where so many witnesses’ credibility has been called into question. This is bad for any firm but for a law firm it is especially damning. Freeths should hang their head in shame. 

Daydreamer24 07 May 21 10:10

I think this should be a wake up call to all firms.  Your salaried staff may be supported but is there anything in place for partners?  Look to yourselves before you go casting aspersions.

Freeths is a high energy, rapid growth firm, in the top 50.  I wonder if Magic Circle would do any better?

Anonymous 07 May 21 10:13

Didn't ROF previously do a story on Mike Taplin calling him out for his behaviour at the conference? Now they are jumping to his defence and having a go at Freeths instead. 

It shows that perhaps ROF shouldn't publish gossip without knowing the facts.

Bill Ithall 07 May 21 10:23

2600hrs is just sad. Was probably making less than a Sidley junior for all that hassle. 

anon 07 May 21 10:26

STEP07. Agree there is a theme of firms saying one thing to clients and to win tenders and then in reality doing things very differently. A look at the recent comments on here highlights who those firms are and hopefully  genuinely responsible clients will hold those firms that win tenders on the diversity, inclusivity, mental health card are properly followed up and held to account. Some firms are getting away with tick box mentality

Anonymous 07 May 21 11:18

Freeths chosen charity for 2019... MIND. 
‘Freeths Mental Health First Aid network is a vibrant community and an important legacy of our partnership.’

Anonymous 07 May 21 11:27

Ah, the old 'think positive' advice as a cure for mental health problems. Goes along with 'don't be so sensitive' and 'man up'.

Anon 07 May 21 11:31

Wow. The judgement finds many of the partners giving evidence were not credible, they didn't disclose documents unhelpful to their case in the litigation until ordered to, and a partner edited statements in the disciplinary process to remove comments from witnesses which were unhelpful to Freeths! Awful reading. Will they put these partners through the same disciplinary process they put Mr Taplin through?

Anonymous 07 May 21 11:32

Bill, probably reflecting its size these days, Freeths’ top of equity is around £750k according to The Lawyer and the judgment suggests he was the highest billing equity partner so I imagine he was at least on a bit more than a Sidley junior, who also wouldn’t have been able to work in Derby (if they had wanted). 

Anonymous 07 May 21 12:00

As an employee of Freeths, I can confirm that its well-being policy is little more than lip service and empty words.

Let hundreds of employees go in the past year and is abusing the good nature of its staff to work excessive hours to make up for it. 

Anonymous 07 May 21 12:48

What a way to treat a hard working managing partner . It's shocking , to hear that gang warfare could exist within a law firm at the expense of someone's mental health . 

Anonymous 07 May 21 14:09

I would recommend a read of the judgement.  It Tribunal is damming in its assessment of the credibility of Freeths senior partners.  It must be uncomfortable reading for Freeths.

Professional reputation is based upon credibility - Freeths has been shattered by the washing of dirty laundry in public.

Anon 07 May 21 14:54

The lawyers that acted for Freeths did a crap job then given all of the witnesses on Freeths part that  were called up were questioned by the ET. Just read the judgment - shocking behaviour by a law firm. No doubt their PR machine will try and put a spin on it! 

buzzkill 07 May 21 15:07

So, a senior partner at Freeths cracked a sexist / racist / homophobic joke at their summer conference.

If that was reported in isolation, this person would have got absolutely crucified.

It is interesting that he was able to get away with it and turn it into a case against Freeths due to mental health. 

 

Anon 07 May 21 15:46

The above comment is clearly yet another prejudice against mental health. The judgement refers to an Adjustment Disorder and disability, with the ‘joke’ being outside of his normal behaviour and of a consistent nature to another individual who was not suspended (and also not disabled). ‘Get away with it’ is an absolutely shocking statement, as someone who has suffered with my own mental health I would urge you to think of the impact this whole thing and quite possibly your comment must have had/will have on this person. 

Lydia 07 May 21 16:01

I just head half of it. Talk about washing dirty linen. Better just to settle these things. Also they bent over backwards to help him. With hindsight sacking him as soon as his problem arose and paying the cost of that would have been better for the firm.

 

Also his and someone else there both told pretty bad jokes at a conference to young women - fancy getting your audience's interests and concerned so wrong...

 

" The ‘joke’ which the Claimant told was in essence that a team from the Respondent had carried out a site visit in a jungle where they met cannibals with spears and went on to allude to and make fun of the relative penis size of the Claimant, Mr Williamson and Mr Beverley. The Claimant had also referred to him having all his certificates so that he was both GDPR and LGBT compliant. The Claimant accepted under cross examination that his presentation involved sexual crudeness, stereotypical racist descriptions, mocking of sexual orientation and was in his own words; “totally indefensible”. He accepted under cross examination (as he would at the disciplinary hearing) that it was a joke he had told over a number of years which he had made into a story for the presentation

....

Mr Tempest’s [someone else] presentation [p.779-781] made reference to one of his team being on maternity leave and the PowerPoint included a picture of a baby and a comment which the Tribunal find alluded to the promptness with which the female colleague became pregnant after getting married. Mr Tempest then showed a slide of ‘forthcoming attractions’ with the face of a woman who was to join the team and at the side of her a picture of Pamela Anderson in a swimsuit. Mr Tempest then put on screen an old black and white picture of himself with the job title ‘NationalHead of Porn. The Tribunal find it was a juvenile and offensive presentation and likely to offend, particularly women in the audience."

Anonymous 07 May 21 16:58

In response to Anon 15.46, but what of the people he offended? Let’s remember he was the Managing Partner of the Derby office and in charge, presumably, of other people’s careers, well-being issues, promotion, career development, etc. Where are the limits to this mental health defence? If he had shot someone, would that have been ok? The comments he made appear incredibly offensive. What should the firm have done? There is a safeguarding issue for other employees too. 

Anon 07 May 21 17:29

“The Claimant was recognised by the Respondent as a high performing Equity Partner. He had personally billed £1.14 million for the financial year ending 31 March 2018. The Chairman Mr Flanagan touched on the preferred model of an Equity Partner namely someone who creates a high performing/billing team rather than the measure of a Partner’s financial success being the level of his own personal billings however, that aside, it is not in dispute that the Claimant was successful in terms of his financial contribution to the Respondent and the client base he had built up and the reputation he had established, both his personal reputation and that of the Derby Real Estate team. Ms Rhodes in cross examination accepted that the Claimant was a “phenomenal driver of business” and “an exceptional talent at bringing clients in and bringing in fees”.

Anonymous 07 May 21 17:51

@Buzzkill - read the judgement. God forbid you ever suffer with mental health. Or maybe you do with a name like that? 

Anon 07 May 21 19:37

@lydia - read the judgment. If you do, I don’t think you will still have the same opinion of Freeths bent over backwards for him. The tribunal found more bent lawyers than AC-12 did. 

Bad call 07 May 21 19:57

Somebody called this wrong.  Should have settled.  The bad press, the embarrassment and the ET’s findings that Freeths senior people are not credible witnesses is shocking.

A major own goal.

I shall be interested to see how much he gets out of them.

Good luck Mike Taplin.

Astonished 08 May 21 12:41

I have suffered mental health issues. In that time I have never likened Africans to cannibals (or made other racist remarks), made sexist remarks (though it is noted that another partner made sexist remarks too but according to the judgment agreed to various sanctions) or homophobic remarks. The joke probably betrays what Mr. Taplin really thinks. His position was untenable. Have no idea why anyone else would employ him after that. In my experience the joke (even if supposedly out of character - how can we really know) betrays who he really is. 

Anon 08 May 21 12:58

Buzzkill - if it was as straight forward as you say, why did Freeths have to withhold evidence, edit evidence and give evidence which was not considered credible by the ET. Read the judgement. It speaks for itself

Freeths senior management and lawyers who were involved in this are a disgrace to the profession. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when the SRA comes knocking at the door. 

 

 

No, I’m Spartacus! 08 May 21 13:23

His mental health deterioration led to the misguided joke? That’s how I read it. The lack of help and support led Mr Taplin to a place he shouldn’t have been allowed in the first place, and they knew it. It also says Mr Taplin led himself to a point of almost suicide. You can’t compartmentalise mental health; he was suffering and it was obvious. Can you imagine if in the context of the email relating to the joke and the potential ‘car crash’, it had been the same towards his suicide attempt - ‘just let it happen’ - Wow, if that doesn’t put things in perspective for everyone to the gross negligence of Freeths, I don’t know what will.

Anonymous 09 May 21 15:53

Remember “Freeths partner fined £4,000 for asking derogatory question to gay trainee”...

Ex-Freeths Trainee 09 May 21 16:14

Freeths is stuck in a 1970s mentality and anyone halfway decent leaves quickly. 

When I was there, a creepy bunch of partners kept hitting on the trainees. Ian Tempest’s lewd presentations (see comments above) don’t surprise me in the least.  Colin Flanagan should have ushered in change long ago, but instead tittered at the back.

Flanagan’s position is now untenable. Anyone who remains at the firm has turned a blind eye to serious problems and deserves to be judged accordingly.  

buzzkill 10 May 21 09:41

When we read other stories about  people in power who make blatantly racist / misogynist / homophobic comments, they get absolutely crucified.

Typically noone ever takes the "it was out of character" defence seriously.

Certainly people don't stop to think "maybe it was triggered by poor mental health".

There is a very interesting double standard between other stories about other such comments and this story. The partner involved clearly had an excellent advocate to be able to shift the focus in the media and at Tribunal away from the comments towards the partner's mental health and the shoddy behaviour of the firm.

⭐️ 10 May 21 10:42

Hopefully this will inspire plenty of other current and former Freeths staff to talk up. 
 

Let’s be honest, what this decision tells us is that going to management won’t help. Instead tell Roll on Friday... 

Anonymous 10 May 21 13:43

Wait until the recording of the partner presentations emerges. Then we’ll see who was laughing.  

 

 

GC 10 May 21 14:45

As a GC and the client of some law firms (and an ex magic circle lawyer), I'm very disturbed about hearing things like this.  I'd flag up with the senior partner if any individuals were working bonkers hours because its simply not sustainable and not offering good value to clients. I'd also question the strength and depth of the firm if any individual is working such hours rather than it being team work.

Anonymous 10 May 21 16:18

Replying to Astonished 08 May 21 12:41

Did you work for Freeths during your mental health issues? If not, then your points are irrelevant, it’s not Mike Taplin vs Everyone/ Anything, it’s Mike Taplin vs Freeths.

The fact you try and compare or make comparisons of mental health traits shows your complete lack of understanding of the issues. 

“I suffered mental health issues, but never once did I kill myself” that’s how dumb you sound…. 

🐝 Former Freeths Worker Bee 11 May 21 11:52

Freeths promotes those who stay quiet. 
 

As a result it is full of nodding dogs. 

 

 

Anonymous 11 May 21 13:26

Surely when Ian Tempest gave his inappropriate presentation people should have stood up and challenged it?  
 

That nobody did speaks volumes. That they didn’t either when Mike Taplin gave his presentation says it all. 
 

This reads like someone being thrown on the scrap heap because the firm had found an excuse.  However it also reveals problems with the culture of Freeths. 

Roger rabbit 13 May 21 23:29

Management team has already been replaced. Whether they are able to take the firm in a new direction whilst the chairman is still there  I'm not so sure.

It's a perfect opportunity to make a statement by terminating his contract by mutual consent and get good pr out of it. 

 

 

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