London’s lawyers strike back at ‘dangerous’ criticism of relations between Russia

Politicians and the press are giving City law firms an unfair kick over their relations with Russia, according to some in the legal profession.

Lawyers have been called out to parliament to represent oligarchs in libel and act for Russian clients facing sanctions. The city’s legal industry was blown up in a recent Times headline for its links to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

But the mood has pushed some lawyers to argue that the sector is being unfairly targeted in the midst of the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is a feeling among some in the legal industry that journalists and politicians have gained easy points from lawyer-bashing since the Russian invasion, they say.

READ Russian lawyers rush to establish new firms amid emigration and fears for the future

“The notion that professional service companies are all scary helping oligarchs hide money is definitely nonsense,” said Herbert Smith Freehill’s partner James Palmer Financial news.

A Magic Circle partner who spoke UN attacked the press’ treatment of their firm, while a US law firm partner dismissed some of the criticism as a “populist” stance.

President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I Stephanie Boyce, also fought back against attacks on lawyers.

“It is dangerous to seek out scapegoats and appoint British lawyers,” Boyce wrote in a letter dated March 24 to Times.

It told a lobbyist from the city UN: “There’s a sense from some in the legal profession that lawyers have had a bit of a tough time.”

Slapps takes center stage

Defamation lawyers have been repeatedly criticized in recent weeks by lawmakers and the media for working with Russian oligarchs suing journalists in British courts.

“We have kleptocrats and criminals and oligarchs intimidating a free media,” Conservative MP Bob Seely told the House of Commons on March 1, naming lawyers who had acted for Russian clients suing publisher HarperCollins over journalist Catherine Belton’s book . Putin’s people.

HarperCollins was charged with legal fees of almost £ 1.5 million. battles brought by oligarchs mentioned in the book.

READ Vladimir Putin’s offshore wealth is his’ Achilles’ heel ‘, says Bill Browder

“No matter how good the procurement is on some of these allegations, and no matter how great the public interest is, the cases are just too expensive to defend,” Belton told the Foreign Affairs Committee on March 15.

The government launched an urgent hearing on March 17 on a potential revision of the rules around so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation – Slapps – which are designed to scare critics. This could include reforms of litigation costs in such cases.

“We have said we will take part in it [consultation]”There is a perception in the wider profession that reforms could be implemented there,” said a spokesman for the Bar Association.

But the spokesman also said the current controversy over libel laws colors the broader perception of City law firms and attorneys.

“There is a confusion of two things. One is this problem around Slapps – the use of English jurisdiction to cool the freedom of expression. The other is the point about law firms that had established themselves in Moscow,” said a spokesman for the Bar Association.

Globalization is not a dirty word

Western law firms have announced they will leave Russia en masse since President Putin’s attack on Ukraine on February 24.

Linklaters on March 4 was the first major Western law firm to say it would leave Russia, triggering a stream of others to leave Russia. On March 14, Dentons became the last of the major international law firms to announce its withdrawal.

Those who argue for the corner of law firms say that their behavior before and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be treated differently.

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Palmer, who was HSF’s chairman and senior partner between 2015 and 2021, said companies are taking signals from the government about where they do business.

“Law firms or auditing firms or banks do not have time to be the State Department as well as to run our firms,” ​​he said.

“Engagement with Russia, building economic ties and working to welcome Russia into a global dialogue has been the policy of several governments and has been actively encouraged,” the city lobbyist noted.

Palmer said Russia’s invasion of its neighbor did not mean companies were wrong in being there in the first place.

“Responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is perfectly correct, but it’s different than saying ‘oh God, we took it completely wrong before,'” he said.

Lawyers remain in the spotlight

But whether the sector has received a bum deal or not, the focus remains on lawyers and law firms for their Russia relations.

Secretary of State James Cleverly last week mentioned law firms that he said traded for Russian or Russian-affiliated clients in relation to British sanctions.

Hermitage Capital’s CEO and longtime critic of Putin, Bill Browder, said in an interview on March 23 with the UN that lawyers and law firms that had acted for the Russian state should be called out.

“These people should be named and they should be ashamed,” he said. “Anyone who has enriched himself as aggressive agents, like attack dogs, for Vladimir Putin should be ashamed of himself and others should take note.”

Some may feel that the legal industry is facing unfair criticism of its work for Russian clients, but with feelings about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine still running high, there is no sign that the spotlight will move from the sector in the near future. future.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, send an email to James Booth

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