Herbert Smith Freehills to fire Australian partner after investigation into sexual harassment claims

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) is set to fire an Australian partner following an investigation into several allegations of sexual harassment made against him.

In a statement, the firm said a male partner based in Australia had been suspended from the partnership on 9 March after an internal investigation found evidence of workplace misconduct.

The firm has also informed the partner, whose identity it refused to confirm, that it will remove him from the partnership on 23 March.

Mutiple Australian media outlets, including The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, have identified the partner in question as Sydney-based Asia-Pacific projects head Peter Paradise, who, according to his firm profile, is “a lead adviser to clients in government and the private sector and consortiums on rail, roads, transport, ports and social infrastructure projects throughout Australia, Asia and Europe”.

According to sources familiar with the matter, several female employees had reported sexual harassment allegations to the firm’s partnership.

In a statement, the firm said: “In the past two weeks several people have come forward to make a number of allegations about the partner’s behaviour. Herbert Smith Freehills is taking them very seriously and has acted promptly.

“The misconduct is behaviour for which Herbert Smith Freehills has no tolerance,” the firm added, without releasing details of the allegations.

HSF chief executive Mark Rigotti said the firm would not tolerate behaviour that contravenes its values, codes and policies. “We will not accept behaviour that violates a person’s dignity or erodes their self-respect,” he said.

“As custodians of the business, the partnership in particular must live and breathe our values and do all they can to ensure that all our team members enjoy an open, inclusive and supportive working environment that encourages them to thrive and enables them to be their whole, true selves at work and outside work,” said Rigotti, adding that he was also deeply disappointed how this partner’s behaviour had impacted others at the firm.

Rigotti, a legacy Freehills partner, took over as sole chief executive in May 2017, with former co-chief executive Sonya Leydecker retiring from the partnership.

Law firms are facing increasing scrutiny over the way they are responding to sexual harassment claims, as well as the systems they have in place for reporting such incidents.

Last week, the UK’s Solicitors Regulation Authority warned law firms not to use non-disclosure agreements to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct, while in December the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to all five magic circle firms to confirm that it could take legal action if they fail to take appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Allegations of misconduct have emerged at a number of major firms in recent months, as more and more women come forward to report examples of inappropriate behaviour.

Last month, Baker McKenzie commissioned a review of its response to a historic sexual assault allegation, with Simmons & Simmons brought in to lead the investigation into its response to the incident. The partner, who was alleged to have assaulted a female associate several years ago, has since left Bakers, while the associate received a payout, entered into a confidentiality agreement and also left the firm.

Separately, Mayer Brown New York partner James Tanenbaum left the firm earlier this month, just a week after joining from Morrison & Foerster, following allegations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct at his previous firm.

Last month a former Linklaters Germany partner was sentenced to three years and three months in prison for sexual assault, while Dentons also recently ousted a partner after learning of allegations made against him while he was at Scottish firm Maclay Murray & Spens, which merged with Dentons last year.

Last year, Legal Week research found that nearly two thirds of female lawyers have experienced some form of sexual harassment while working at a law firm, with more than half experiencing it on more than one occasion. A number of female lawyers also spoke anonymously to Legal Week about their experiences of sexual harassment in the profession, following the research.