Exclusive Legal Cheek investigation: A mining and energy specialist solicitor, the London office of a top Canadian law firm, some posh “search” consultants and a leading legal directory may have been fooled by international fraudsters
A top City solicitor fell victim to a scam that resulted in the London office of a leading Canadian law firm wrongly promoting him as a queen’s counsel.
The inaccurate QC qualification was used to bag top-flight instructions and roles, including a consultancy with leading Toronto-based law firm, McCarthy Tétrault.
In a salutary warning that even experienced international lawyers can be conned, a Legal Cheek investigation has revealed a catalogue of personal gullibility, collective inefficiencies and official bumbling.
Coming on the heels of this week’s silk ceremony — in which 93 practising lawyers were made up to the rank in England and Wales — the story will potentially reheat the debate over the validity of what many see as little more than a vanity gong for the legal profession.
This tale of woe revolves around Australian-Irish lawyer Michael McCooe, who claims to have been duped by a shadowy organisation that dished out QC certificates for “administration” fees running to thousands of pounds.
The story dates back to 2006, when McCooe — a respected mining and energy specialist lawyer — was still in Sydney. He has told Legal Cheek that he received a letter from an outfit travelling under the exotic name of the League of International Attorneys (LIA).
The so-called league claimed to be able to acquire senior legal titles for lawyers who were entitled to enhanced ranks in various common law jurisdictions, but were simply too busy to go to the trouble of applying for the gongs themselves.
In McCooe’s case, the pitch suggested he was eligible for the rank of QC in Australia via a federal application, which would then be repatriated to an individual state. McCooe maintains he did not accept that rather grand assertion at face value and contacted the New South Wales Bar Association for clarification. An official, he claims, verified that in principle a third-party could make an application on a lawyer’s behalf.
Ultimately, McCooe says he opted for New South Wales as his favoured state of repatriation, stumped up US$2,500 (£1,600) via a credit card payment to the LIA, sending it with a form to business reply address in Vancouver in Canada.
“I thought it was worth a punt,” he commented ruefully to Legal Cheek.
A certificate eventually arrived through the post to McCooe’s Sydney address, but the lawyer claims that prior to 2011 he rarely used the QC rank in connection with his work.
However, when the lawyer joined the London office of McCarthy Tétrault in June 2011 — McCooe is also an English-qualified solicitor — the firm issued an excited press release claiming the recruitment of a silk to its ranks.
The Canadians described McCooe as being “among the most senior and experienced lawyers in Europe”, billing him as an expert in international competition and regulatory work, along with international litigation and mergers and acquisitions deals. He was held out as having specific expertise in the mining, resources and energy sectors.
Not long after his appointment, McCarthy Tétrault heavily promoted McCooe’s recently won instructions to advise the Colombian government on a border dispute with Nicaragua. Throughout its media communications, the firm referred to McCooe as a QC. Indeed, an entry on the firm’s lawyer profile section from the time describes McCooe as being “Queen’s Counsel to our London, UK, office’.
That profile claims McCooe was educated at the University of New South Wales, King’s College London and the University of Zurich. It goes on to say that McCooe was legally qualified in England and Wales, New South Wales, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland and France.
The firm also repeatedly referred to McCooe as a QC in several legal profession directory entries, including Chambers & Partners Global.
That development could reignite debate simmering around the multi-million pound directories market. All directories have to greater and lesser degrees been criticised in the past for allegedly running out-of-date or in some cases inaccurate information in the reams of law firm and chambers entries published each year.
Further details of McCooe’s CV come from documents seen by Legal Cheek from City-based legal profession headhunting business Marsden Group. It too promoted McCooe as a QC when the lawyer was bidding to jump from McCarthy Tétrault and was scouting round for potential law firms.
In that pitch, McCooe makes heavy play of having “worked very closely” with the crème de la crème of City law firms. Among those he cites are Slaughter and May, Linklaters, as well as the London and Australia offices of Herbert Smith Freehills, Clearly Gottlieb in Washington, and several leading far east practices.
But it all started to turn sour for McCooe and McCarthy Tétrault in October 2013. One of the firm’s London-based senior partners informed McCooe that the management had received allegations that his QC rank was bogus.
McCooe searched for his LIA certificate, but realised it had been left in Australia. He attempted to contact the league, but all roads led to a series of dead-ends.
Eventually McCooe tracked the league down to a call centre in India. Several times he requested a duplicate certificate and eventually a supposed copy was dispatched to McCarthy Tétrault’s head office in Toronto.
Officials there sent it to the NSWBA for verification. Initially the the bar association confirmed its validity, but subsequently the top official at the NSWBA has confirmed that was a mistake and the certificate was a doctored version of one of its online forms.
Philip Selth, the association’s executive director, told Legal Cheek that the original confirmation was wrong:
“[The] response in 2013 appears to have been sent in error; the details on the attachment are not correct.”
Selth added that the attachment sent to the association from the law firm “was not created by us and did not come from the NSW Bar Association, although it appears to attempt to replicate how the find-a-barrister section of our website used to look. The attachment contains additional fields that were never present on our website.”
In fact, Selth goes on to say the document concerned “is not a statement of status — that is an entirely different document”.
Seth also confirmed to Legal Cheek that McCooe had never been granted either the status of QC or senior counsel in New South Wales.
It therefore appears as though the League of International Attorneys forged the document. That organisation now seems to have disappeared without trace — McCooe told Legal Cheek that his recent attempts to contact the organisation have failed, with all past telephone numbers now dead.
Indeed, Legal Cheek’s own efforts to track down the organisation have produced no evidence of any current public face.
McCooe has subsequently left McCarthy Tétrault. A spokeswoman described the firm as “obviously disappointed” with the saga. She would not comment on why it waited more than two years before checking McCooe’s status with the NSW Bar Association, pointing out only that:
“Mr McCooe was fully qualified to operate in the capacity in which he was employed by us. We are not in position to comment further”.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Marsden, the founder of Marsden Legal Search & Recruitment declined to comment on the headhunters’ due diligence processes in confirming the stated credentials and qualifications of lawyers it attempts to place. Marsden commented:
“The work we do for law firms and individuals is of an extremely confidential nature and it would be highly inappropriate to discuss any aspect of our business with you.”
Over at legal directory monolith Chambers & Partners, managing director Mark Wyatt was adamant that its global directory “does not rank or recommend Mr McCooe in any form”. He added:
“The only mention of Mr McCooe in any Chambers product is within a marketing communication supplied to us referencing a deal he was involved in”.
Wyatt went on to say that as of yesterday, Chambers had removed that reference “pending the results of an ongoing investigation by the team in consultation with McCarthy Tétrault”.
On the sensitive issue of how clearly directories should distinguish law firm marketing puff from editorial research, Wyatt said:
“We never blend our independent commentary with marketing material, there is always a separation in physical location and style, both web and print.”
As for the English regulators, they have little to say on the subject of a lawyer and a law firm illegitimately holding out a QC qualification, albeit unwittingly. A spokesman for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) told Legal Cheek:
“There is no specific offence of calling oneself a QC when one is not entitled to do so, unlike calling oneself a barrister or solicitor when not entitled to do so.
“If we have information which suggests someone may be passing themselves off as a barrister when they are not entitled to do so we will normally pass it to the police, unless there is good reason to think they are already aware.”
The spokesman went on to say that as McCooe is an English-qualified solicitor “matters regarding his conduct are for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to deal with”.
Over to the SRA, then. Its code of conduct stipulates that any publicity solicitors produce about themselves “is accurate and not misleading, and is not likely to diminish the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”.
Therefore, says a spokesman:
“If Mr McCooe has been holding himself out as having qualifications that he does not, then that could constitute a breach of the code. Anyone pretending to be a solicitor would be committing a criminal act under the Solicitors Act 1974 and the SRA could prosecute.”
That seems fairly straightforward, but the spokesman qualified by saying:
“But claiming to be an Australian QC is not an area where we could get involved. It would be for other agencies to declare whether or not this was illegal.”
As for McCooe himself, he claims to have been nothing more than a naïve and gullible victim of an elaborate fraud. On realising in early 2014 that the League of International Attorneys had about as much of a foot in reality as the League of Gentlemen, McCooe resigned from McCarthy Tétrault and immediately attempted to withdraw all published references to the bogus QC title.
“I’m devastated by this,” McCooe told Legal Cheek. “I’ve called back all QC documents and have fallen on my sword at the firm. I’ve not worked since as a lawyer and will not again.”