An alleged victim of sexual harassment has reported Herbert Smith Freehills and the head of its employment practice to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for "aggressive and intimidating behaviour" while acting for her former employer.

Nathalie Abildgaard recently took IMF Investors, an Australian private equity fund manager, to the Central London Employment Tribunal after one of its executive directors, 50-year-old Frederic Michel-Verdier, allegedly sexually harassed her.

Abildgaard claimed that Michel-Verdier told her, “I am so much older than you. You are young. I can teach you a lot about sex” while they celebrated the completion of a deal with other staff at the Bling Bling nightclub in Madrid. "If I was 20 years younger, I would have been all over you", he allegedly told the 27-year-old, before inviting her to his hotel room and texting her his room number.

Michel-Verdier denied that he made any sexual advances towards Abildgaard, but told the tribunal it may have been “irresponsible and naïve” to send her his room number. Following IFM’s investigation, his bonus was docked and he was banned from drinking at work events for a year. Just before a second hearing at the tribunal, IFM settled Abildgaard's claim for £270,000.

Speaking to Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee as part of its inquiry into the problems people encounter trying to enforce the Equality Act, Abildgaard testified to the prohibitive cost of bringing an action, but also accused lawyers at HSF, which acted for IFM, of "aggressive and intimidating behaviour".


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She said that around 9pm on the evening before she was due to be cross examined, Andrew Taggart, a partner at HSF and the head of its employment practice, called her lawyer and said "something to the effect of, 'If Nathalie goes on the witness stand tomorrow, her [and a fellow witness's] credibility will be so shattered they will never be able to work in the financial industry in London again'", and that "'Nathalie is toast'". RollOnFriday understands that the time of the call was scheduled at the request of Abildgaard's lawyers.

Abildgaard said that a letter Herbies sent to her lawyers was further evidence of unconscionable aggression. The letter stated a belief that the tribunal “will not just dismiss Nathalie’s claim, but also find that she has not been truthful in her dealings in relation to this matter", and stated that "such a finding could cause irreparable harm to Nathalie and have serious implications for her", and that "she could be ordered to pay the costs incurred by our clients in defending these proceedings, which are substantial and increasing daily”.

Abildgaard said HSF also wrote to her lawyers warning that "unless I provided certain information about my new job", IFM "reserved the right to reach out to my new employer". Abildgaard told the inquiry that "there was no (to me at least) conceivable basis on which it would be appropriate to involve my new employer in the matter".

She has reported Taggart and HSF to the SRA, although RollOnFriday understands that the regulator has not yet written to Taggart formally. There is no suggestion that he has been found in breach of professional standards.

In a statement, a spokesperson for HSF said, "We are aware that Ms Abildgaard has made a complaint to the SRA. This process is at its early stages and we will be fully co-operating with the SRA."

A spokesman for the SRA said, "We’re looking at the information received before deciding on any next steps". 

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Comments

Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells 14 June 19 08:17

This is getting ridiculous. He was doing his job FFS. In the absence of being seen through the narrow prism of a sexual harassment claim, how would this approach - pointing out an opposing witness may have difficulties in evidence and the possible consequences of such - differ from any other dispute matter? Regardless of the underlying facts or merits we cannot, and should not, displace representing clients to our best ability for the fear of unwarranted running to the SRA.

Anonymous 14 June 19 08:42

Because of the way this claim was conducted, the people I felt sorry for were the victim and his family.

Anonymous 14 June 19 08:55

The underlying claim appears to be a case of two people who had both been drinking joking about him giving his room number, initially instigated by her. Not sure how it ended up as a 'sexual harassment' complaint.

Anonymous 14 June 19 09:12

I've been on the receiving end of similar threats on the eve of trial. It gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling to know that if my oppo is phoning to express faux concern about by client's life post-trial, then that probably means they are shitting themselves.

Anonymous 14 June 19 09:45

"Not sure how it ended up as a 'sexual harassment' complaint."     You don't need to be.  IFM certainly were, with their certainty evidenced to the tune of a £270k settlement.

Anonymous 14 June 19 11:18

Anyone wishing to pass meaningful comment needs to understand how it ended up as a 'sexual harassment' complaint, 09.45, you included. IFM certainly didn't regard it as sexual harassment, they have been clear that they deny the accusations. £270,000 was the cheapest way to make the accuser go away and reduce Michel-Verdier's suffering.

Anon 14 June 19 11:29

Good lord, a law firm acting in the best interests of its client, whatever next.  They are perfectly entitled to point out to the other side the consequences if she is found to have lied in evidence, and they obviously need her new employment details to assess mitigation and calculate damages, duh.  Sounds like someone has a massive martyr complex that needs feeding.  

Lydia 14 June 19 11:53

I don't think the way they worded that was appropriate. There is just no need in litigation to state that kind of thing. Everyone already knows that if they lie no oath they will be in trouble. She would already know the costs risks too.

 

£270k sounds like quite a lot for being sent a phone number. People can send their number to me today and I will send back the £270k invoice immediately for each one!

Anonymous 14 June 19 12:27

"£270,000 was the cheapest way to make the accuser go away and reduce Michel-Verdier's suffering."   Their choice.  If I was in their/his shoes and genuinely believed it to be a shakedown, I would have fought on.  I would not have been interested in the cheapest way to rid myself of an accusation.

Anonymous 14 June 19 12:30

There is a real danger here that we shift so far to the opposite end of the ‘acceptable behaviour’ spectrum, that respondent lawyers effectively become charged with acting in the best interests of the claimant as well. 

It’s reasonable to assert lack of truthfulness if there is reasonable evidence to support it. It’s reasonable to then point out the consequences of being found to have been untruthful. Is it reasonable to point this out shortly before cross-examination - why not?

If the claimant is not represented, then more caution is due. But if they’re represented by lawyers (as here), then it’s for the claimant’s lawyers to act in the best interests of the claimant.  

It doesn’t matter what the complaint is, if people want to litigate they need to accept it’s not going to be a fireside chat. Why should respondents roll over? 

anon 14 June 19 12:36

Reading these comments, one gets the impression there are number of jittery litigators out there.

After many years of bullying and similarly unpleasant tactics, particularly in this type of case, the chickens are coming home to roost. 

Anonymous 14 June 19 12:43

£270k was the amount IFM had to pay to make the complainant go away, it doesn't really relate to the harm caused by the allegation Lydia.

The complainant was also accused of asking for his room number, but the matter was settled before the case was heard.

Anonymous 14 June 19 16:06

I think the thing that is telling is the way they approached it.  They talked about a belief that she was being untruthful, that such a finding could cause irreparable damage and could have serious consequences, and that she could be ordered to pay the costs.  They also threatened to contact her employer.  All of those are couched in very conditional terms, but are clearly designed to have an impact on her willingness to give evidence.  If they had any genuine reason to conclude that she was lying, or evidence to prove it, you would refer to that detail and then to the conclusions that could be drawn.  Either they have no idea how to build a credible submission from the evidence, or there was no evidence on which to base such an accusation.  It sounds like they then caved and settled, which rather suggests that there was no credible evidence.  They may have couched it in language which is sufficiently vague to avoid a breach, but it's conduct that I would never condone from anyone in my team and it is not how one should conduct litigation.  I tend to agree with Anon at 09:12 - if I had received a communication like that, I'd know the other side were getting desperate!

Anonymous 14 June 19 16:53

It could be that they were desperate to avoid a hearing, 16.06, but they may also have had evidence or a genuine belief she was lying.

Anonymous 14 June 19 18:23

You say that, 12.27, and I hope you would, but unless you've been in the position IFM have its difficult to know how you would react. 

I would have liked to see this go to hearing in order to get a clearer understanding of what happened (remember there were allegations against the accuser as well), but IFM took the pragmatic choice that it was probably cheaper to pay the £270k to make the complainant go away and also had to take into account the impact of the matter on the firm's staff. Its sad but in a way understandable and in no way reflects the truth or otherwise of the allegations.

Important 14 June 19 20:02

You usually hit the spot RoF but not this time. HSF are big and ugly enough to take this sort of unsubstantiated criticism but it is unacceptable for you to diss an individual in these circumstances. For the record, I acted against Andrew Taggart some years ago in a very hard fought action and he was/is patently a man of great integrity acting in the best interests of his client. Shame on you RoF for suggesting otherwise. 

 

Anonymous 14 June 19 20:55

Important 20.02 - how have rof dissed him? By reporting that a complaint has been made?

Anon 14 June 19 21:08

People should bear in mind, as in all cases of this nature, that the only person able to shout loud and have their version splashed all over the media is the claimant.

Organisations have multiple pressures to consider: investors/shareholders, the other employee, reputational risk, economic risk, internal precedent and, post-Weinstein, considering whether settling (with or without NDAs) is a morally correct course of action. The way you deal with something like this could get more negative press than the incident itself.

Not all of those will have equal weighting over the course of a claim and in the end, some will win out over others. And then the claimant can still use Parliamentary privilege to batter the organisation’s reputation without right of reply. And yet the narrative is still “little victim against Goliath”. Guess which side of the story sells more papers?

Anonymous 16 June 19 08:57

It is an unfortunate truth that there isn't a free and balanced media in the UK in this type of claim. In this case, the reporting was one-sided and while there were plenty of articles representing the accuser, none represented the perspective of the accused. IFM wanted to defend the claim, but were unable to deal with the media campaign. Michel-Verdier suffered an enormous loss of privacy and must have endured a terrible time over allegations which, on the face of it, in no way amounted to harassment.

It's not reasonable 16 June 19 10:07

For the respondent's lawyer, simulating concern, to advise the complainants in person or via proxy about their opinion on how they should conduct their case. It will be rightly perceived as intimidation.

By all means call her a liar but save it for the judge.

Shaun Ryan 16 June 19 12:19

What a Snowflake. Soldiers get less for losing a limb. Dry your eyes & get on with spending your huge payout Ms A!

 

Anonymous 16 June 19 15:23

The accusations weren't saved for the judge though, but made via the media, It's not reasonable.

Its an interesting question - if the accused's side genuinely believes that the accuser is lying (and there is nothing to support the notion that concern was 'simulated') and that the accuser will be criticised by the court for doing so, isn't it in the interests of both sides if the accused's side conveys this to the accuser or their reoresentatives?

Anonymous 16 June 19 21:21

No one has enough information to pass comment. We haven’t read any of the evidence, we don’t know what was really said, we don’t know why anyone really settled. Based on the allegations above, the lawyer crossed several lines but these are allegations and we don’t have the relevant information to make appropriate comment. The SRA will review.

It's not reasonable 17 June 19 00:37

If you happen to genuinely be struck with a pro bono need to advise your opposition and you feel that the advice you are given just happens to be in your own client's interests then you still would be perceived by a reasonable person as being 1)  hopelessly conflicted and therefore 2) in no position to judge the other party's interests. Just leave it for the other side to advise their own clients. And with litigants in person doubly avoid this as you will be perceived as taking advantage of your professional expertise to bamboozle.

Anonymous 17 June 19 12:15

Its not reasonable - parties are expected to work together to attempt to resolve disputes as far as possible. If the accused's side genuinely feels that, based on the available evidence, the accuser is lying and that these lies will be exposed in court, then they are well within their rights to convey this to the other side, indeed should be expected to do so. The claimant here was not a litigant in person, but the same would apply if they were, as long as the belief that the claimant was lying was genuine and not an attempt to take advantage of the LIPs status.

Anonymous 17 June 19 17:33

We know enough, @21.21 on 16th June, to be able to say that one conclusion that can be drawn is that there is no merit to the underlying claims. We do know why IFM settled - it was to make the accuser go away (IFM continue to deny the accusations). Based on the allegatons, we don't know if the lawyer crossed lines or not, it depends on the intent. The SRA will review, but they must do so impartially and not allow outside pressure to influence this review.

Bob 17 June 19 20:33

The pedantic and pathetic emails and letters which litigators trade will be sorely missed by legal satirists when they are summarily phased out in the coming years.  Not only are they frequently offensive, but a complete waste of time and energy.  They embarrass the writer more than scare anyone.

Naming no names, certain firms’ entire reputations as fearsome litigators seem to be based on their ability to concoct such drivel.

It's not reasonable 18 June 19 00:30

To be a partial advocate and purport to act as an impartial judge. The other side will have their own professional advisors.  Don't conflate the practicality of making reasonable offers with Mystic Meg predictions  about the other side's interests.   The fact is everyone knows a litigator charges for their time and doesn't give freebies to the opposition except to lean on them in a thoroughly unedifying Michael Cohenesque manner. Nothing good can come from such interactions.

Acting in a client's interests doesn't override your responsibility as a professional to facilitate the rule of law, obey criminal law, or professional ethics. Don't threaten people just because your client asked you to. Simples really.

Anonymous 18 June 19 07:26

It's not reasonable - if the accused's side genuinely believes the accuser to be lying and genuinely believes that the lies will be exposed in court, then it is not only ethical to tell the other side, but in the interests of the accused's client to do so and in line with what the courts expect the parties to do. It is entirely up to the accuser's representatives or the accuser to decide whether to take the advice, but the accused's side must be free to give it, provided it is in good faith.

Anonymous 18 June 19 07:38

Most of the evidence sounds uncorroborated. Presumably the evidence regarding new employment was to gauge mitigation of loss in relation to any settlement?

Everyone knows litigators are professional whiners, and HS excel at it, but this article is like reporting Plumber Vague About Arrival Time and Seems To Charge A Great Deal. 

Anonymous 18 June 19 22:42

Certainly a valid topic for discussion Bob, although we must be careful to take a consistent approach regardless of the gender of the accused, the gender of the accuser, and in all cases, not just allegations of 'sexual harassment'.

Amy B 19 June 19 13:45

Good for her. These horrible old men (the bully-boy litigator included) need to be taught a lesson. 

Anonymous 20 June 19 13:16

Amy B - its important that the SRA look at this in an unbiased fashion. Whether or not the complaint is upheld should have nothing to do with the lawyer or his accuser's age or gender. With respect to the underlying matter, there were accusations on both sides, and it hasn't been established who, if anyone, was 'horrible'. Remember, merely being old or male does not make one 'horrible'!