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Clifford Chance’s Aysh Chaudhry saga — a sad and salutary tale

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Global mega firm caught between a rock and a hard place as fall-out from YouTube rant lingers

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Rarely does one feel sorry for senior managers at global law firms, but Clifford Chance’s top partnership team has undeniably been facing an uncomfortable conundrum over the last few days.

The firm’s reaction to a situation over which the senior partners would have had no control — the posting on YouTube of virulent and arguably inflammatory pro-Islamic and anti “west” opinions by a recently recruited trainee — was never going to please everyone.

Whatever one’s views of the philosophical and social content of Aysh Chaudhry’s emotional rant — which grabbed newspaper headlines this week after an exclusive Legal Cheek report last Wednesday — as sure as eggs is eggs you can bet CC partners wish he’d kept those thoughts to himself, or at very least off one of the world’s most widely accessed public social media platforms.

Indeed, the Chaudhry episode raises several crucial issues for modern global law firms that now practise in many jurisdictions. It also highlights the point of whether law firms need to enforce strict social media policies on their lawyers, and whether they should apply those policies even to those lawyers’ activities that are not work related.

Undoubtedly, there will be some keen to claim that recent law firm moves towards greater diversity in their recruitment is the first casualty of Clifford Chance’s predicament. It would be a pity if this saga dissuaded City law firms in their attempts to recruit from a wider pool, and it is unlikely to do so.

The Clifford Chance-Chaudhry story is not a crisis borne out of diversity but out of globalisation. More than a quarter of a century ago, when Clifford Turner and Coward Chance merged, it is likely that none of the merged firm’s articled clerks would have been a Muslim.

Some 28 years on, Clifford Chance is one of the largest firms in the world, raking in nearly £1.4 billion in revenue for 2013-14 on the backs of around 3,300 lawyers working in 36 offices in 26 countries.

And a region where the firm has made a big push over recent years is the Middle East. Its own website portrays the practice as being:

“… the Middle East’s market-leading international law firm…. We work with clients throughout the Middle East and North Africa and have offices in Abu Dhabi, Casablanca, Doha, Dubai, Istanbul and Riyadh”.

Put the puff about the firm’s “market-leading” status to one side (which global practice reckons it doesn’t lead the market?), and consider the geography.

Chaudhry took a lot of heat in the Legal Cheek comment sections — see here and here — for invoking the term “Muslim lands”, the historic definition of which is somewhat vague and open to debate. But it is beyond dispute that Clifford Chance’s modern Persian Gulf footprint falls squarely on currently Muslim-governed countries.

In addition to practising across a range of legal jurisdictions, modern law firms operate across a wide variety of cultural, religious and social environments. Business may be business, but there are still local sensitivities. And that is why CC is currently in a pickle.

Chaudhry’s video diatribe might be uncomfortable, unpleasant and even offensive to many. Or it might just appear to be out and out stupid. But he does stop short of incitement to violence and, arguably, racial abuse. (However, if the Daily Telegraph’s report is accurate, and the introductory Arabic chant to the 21-minute dose of hectoring is the same as that used by Isis and Al-Qaeda, Chaudhry’s position becomes increasingly difficult.)

Sources close to the firm suggest the fall-out from the media storm has been traumatic. It is understood that many of Chaudhry’s fellow trainees — and several associates and partners — are increasingly agitated by what they view as the firm’s hierarchy throwing a blanket over the story. Some actively maintain that Chaudhry’s views as expressed on the video are intolerant and those colleagues will therefore struggle to work with him in the future.

But for a variety of “global” reasons, the grand poobahs at Clifford Chance will be stepping ever so softly around this issue. London managing partner David Bickerton and the firm’s graduate recruitment manager, Laura Yeates, are understood to have told trainees that Chaudhry is entitled to his opinions but that the firm does not support those views. As a result it has been inferred that Clifford Chance will defend Chaudhry’s position at the practice.

Several commentators have likewise called for action or at least guidance from solicitor-profession authority. But don’t hold your breath on that front. A spokesman for the Solicitors Regulation Authority told Legal Cheek:

“This is an employment issue — it’s up to Clifford Chance to deal with as they see fit. Social media policies and otherwise are standard for any business, regardless of what area they work in. It wouldn’t be for us the regulator to dictate on general employment issues”.

The Law Society was slightly, but not much, more forthcoming, with a spokeswoman intoning:

“Social media has real benefits for firms, but solicitors should be aware that a comment or opinion may impact on their professional reputation. It is for firms to decide what guidance to give their staff on social media.”

Ultimately, this is a sad as well as salutary tale. The most positive interpretation is that a young man, with good academic credentials, a bright future and an obvious deep-seated religious faith, makes a massive error of judgement. But there is a big difference between making a monster cock up and being a bad human being; judgement on this person’s wider character should not be played out in the media.

And Chaudhry is by no means the first to fall into the bear trap of social media. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even — as we found out in the case of ‘Lord Harley of Counsel’ — LinkedIn, they can all be disasters waiting to happen for individuals and their employers. So often what seems like a good idea to post on social media is best left stashed away out of public view.

If nothing else Aysh Chaudhry’s experience should drive that lesson home to law students, trainees and qualified lawyers alike.