Top US law firm reports itself to the SRA after libel trial is Zoomed around the world

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By CJ McKinney on

McDermott Will & Emery in hot water over breach of judge’s order

A leading firm of solicitors has reported itself and two of its London-based partners to the regulator after a live feed of a high-profile libel trial was beamed around the world in breach of the judge’s express orders.

US-headquartered giant McDermott Will & Emery was representing a Russian businessman who’s suing ex-MI6 man Christopher Steele over an explosive dossier about Donald Trump’s alleged links to Russia.

A Zoom link to the trial, which took place last month, ended up being sent to the client’s family and several others despite Mr Justice Warby ordering that it not be live streamed.

A disciplinary judgment from the High Court accused the firm of falling “well below the standards to be expected of senior and experienced legal professionals”.

The case itself goes back to January 2017, when the BuzzFeed website published a dossier of allegations against Trump that Steele had put together. This was the document that said that the Russians could have “kompromat” (compromising material) about the President-elect, including a supposed “golden shower” romp in a Moscow hotel room.

The BuzzFeed article created what media lawyers call a “shitstorm” and several people named in the dossier sued in the US and UK courts. Last month, Steele’s company was ordered to pay £18,000 each to two Russian billionaires for misuse of their personal data.

The most recent case is a more traditional libel action by another Russian businessman, Aleksej Gubarev, who’s suing Steele with the help of MWE. The trial took place in July 2020 before Mr Justice Warby and a decision is pending.

MWE’s conduct during the trial has come in for some serious scrutiny in the meantime. A furious Warby referred the firm for a “Hamid” disciplinary hearing before two other senior judges, who gave judgment yesterday.

The problems centred around social distancing arrangements. The firm got Warby’s back up from the off: an associate solicitor at MWE emailed court officials making demands about the arrangements like “we require a 2nd courtroom to be reserved for the press and public”.

After some grumbling about the “inappropriate” tone, the judge granted an order for an overflow courtroom where people could watch the trial by video link. But he stipulated that “there shall be no transmission of any live audio or video recording… to any location other than the second courtroom”.

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That’s not how it turned out. Several of MWE’s clients abroad ended up with the Zoom link to the live feed that was intended only for the second courtroom and were able to watch the proceedings remotely. This came to light on day three of the trial.

When Warby demanded an explanation, an apologetic QC reported that an MWE partner had “a slight memory fade on Monday, when she told some of my clients that it was all right to use the Zoom feed”.

The partner later sent Warby’s clerk an email admitting that she had mistakenly told people that they could Zoom in using the link that had been circulated. She said that seven people on her side had received the link, including Gubarev’s wife and daughter in Cyprus.

It seems to have been circulated more widely: an American journalist managed to listen in as well.

To be fair, the trial was open to the public and the media — it’s not like the proceedings were private. It was the breach of Warby’s express order that was the problem.

Within days, MWE had reported itself and two partners to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the disciplinary hearing had been convened in front of Dame Victoria Sharp and Mrs Justice Andrews.

The duo said that Warby’s order “could not have been clearer” and that the solicitors’ explanations were “difficult to comprehend and lack coherence”.

Sharp and Andrews added:

“Even if the explanations are to be taken at face value however, the picture that they paint is an unhappy one, demonstrating a casual attitude towards orders of the Court which falls well below the standards to be expected of senior and experienced legal professionals, and a lack of appropriate guidance and supervision of more junior staff, in a matter of importance. Furthermore, until the judge made plain how seriously he viewed what had happened, there appeared to be a lack of focus on and engagement with the seriousness of the breaches.”

The judges left the question of punishment up to the SRA, but directed that a copy of the judgment be sent to the regulator “so that this Court’s views of the seriousness of the breaches in this case can be made known to it”.

It would have been worse: the judgment also records that Warby “actively contemplated” asking the Attorney General to consider contempt of court proceedings.

A spokesperson for MWE told Legal Cheek: “We respect the judgment of the Court and regret our error in this matter. We note that the Court did not find these actions to be deliberate and recognized our self-reporting to the SRA. We continue to act with the rigor and precision on which our firm was founded”.

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