SDT judgment sets out White & Case failings after record £250k fine for conflicts breach

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has criticised both White & Case and partner David Goldberg in its judgment of a case for which the firm was fined a record £250,000 for conflict and confidentiality failures.

The fine, the largest ever made by the SDT against a single firm, relates to a 2014 High Court case that saw White & Case blocked from acting for Ukrainian client Victor Pinchuk after it failed to identify a conflict of interest.

The judgment, published today (10 August), states that Goldberg’s actions “caused harm to the reputation of the profession in an area of international business and that harm was reasonably foreseeable”.

Goldberg, an arbitration specialist who splits his time between London and Moscow, was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay costs of £12,500.

The ruling also criticises White & Case for its conduct, particularly given the “ample resources” of the firm, stating: “The tribunal considered that the impact of the harm arising out of White & Case’s conduct on the reputation of and trust placed in the profession internationally, was considerably greater than that of one individual.”

The SDT judgment explains that the firm breached the standards the public would expect of it, in the way it dealt with conflicts of interest in this case.

“It was a sizeable international law firm operating in a very complex area of work. It had complete control of its procedures and vast experience of the complexities of the world in which it operated and its clients and staff were dependent on it having robust procedures in place to handle potential or real conflict of interest,” the judgment reads. “The public would expect it; this was a matter of professional organisation and efficiency. Such procedures were essential to the protection of clients and to enable clients to have confidence in the firm and to be completely open with their legal advisers.”

According to the ruling, White & Case’s conduct was considered “significantly serious” that it came within level 5 of its indicative fine bands, while Goldberg’s conduct merited a fine in the high end of level 4, “because of the potential harm to the international reputation of the legal profession”.

White & Case was also ordered to pay £25,000 in costs.

The firm’s relationship with Pinchuk dated back to September 2010, when Goldberg started advising the Ukranian and his management company on a dispute with oligarchs Igor Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyubov.

In April 2011, White & Case New York partner Colin Diamond was approached to advise on a restructuring exercise and preparation for an initial public offering of Optima Industrial Management, in which Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov had ownership interests. He accepted the instruction after an internal conflicts check and confirmation from Goldberg that the earlier Pinchuk dispute had been settled.

The SDT judgement states that the issue of a potential conflict arose in May 2012 when the 2010 dispute was revived, but that Goldberg “forgot” that he had not objected to Diamond accepting the Optima instruction.

In January 2014, White & Case was debarred from advising Pinchuk after Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov sought an injunction, arguing that the firm could have obtained confidential information about the pair’s assets and corporate structures while handling the Optima instruction.

Today’s ruling sets out how White & Case has “taken steps to prevent the inadvertent sharing of confidential information between partners as part of the conflicts clearance process”. That included a restructuring of its general counsel function in January 2014 that saw the replacement of the former general counsel with two co-GCs, one based in London and one based in New York, supported by four assistant or deputy GCs.

The SDT also acknowledges that White & Case has “not only self-reported, but has fully cooperated” during the course of the investigation.

In a statement, a White & Case spokesperson said: “White & Case and its partners are committed to upholding the legal industry’s highest standards at all times, in all of the jurisdictions where we operate. We accept that in relation to specific matters between November 2012 and August 2013, we breached the SRA Code of Conduct and Principles, and we fully accept the SDT’s judgment.

“We have robust policies and procedures in relation to conflicts of interest and safeguarding client information, underpinned by strong systems and regular training and support for partners, lawyers and staff. We cooperated fully with the SRA, and where necessary, have strengthened our policies and procedures.”

Clyde & Co and West End firm Fulgers jointly held the previous record for the largest fine received by a law firm from the SDT, at £50,000. Clydes was fined in April for breaching money laundering rules by allowing the firm’s client account to be used as a banking facility. Three of the firm’s partners each received £10,000 fines.