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".