SRA warns firms not to use NDAs to cover up sexual harassment reporting

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has warned law firms in England and Wales not to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct, in the wake of several sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the profession.

The SRA issued a warning notice today (12 March), reminding firms that any potential professional misconduct by a person or firm should be reported to the regulator, including sexual harassment or misconduct.

NDAs, used to protect the confidentiality of the firms, the alleged victim and the alleged aggressor, should not interfere with this reporting obligation according to the regulator.

In a statement, the SRA said: “NDAs are widely used to protect commercial interests, confidentiality, and – in some circumstances – reputation. However, they should not be used to prevent people reporting wrongdoing to the relevant authorities, such as the police or a regulator.”

It also revealed that between November 2015 and October 2017, it received 21 complaints relating to such allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “The public and the profession expects solicitors to act with integrity and uphold the rule of law. And most do. NDAs have a valid use, but not for covering up serious misconduct and, in some cases, potential crimes.”

The regulator’s move comes as the legal profession has been thrust into the spotlight over how it deals with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

Last month, Baker McKenzie commissioned a review of its response to a historic sexual assault allegation, amid intense scrutiny over the firm’s handling of the incident.

The firm has instructed Simmons & Simmons to lead the review of its response to the incident, which occurred several years ago.

The allegations centre around the alleged sexual assault of a female associate by a male partner, who left the firm after the claims came to light at the beginning of the month.

The associate received a payout from Bakers and entered into a confidentiality agreement before leaving the firm.

Separately, last week Mayer Brown New York partner James Tanenbaum left the firm following allegations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct at former firm Morrison & Foerster (MoFo).

He tendered his resignation after reports surfaced that he had been terminated by MoFo in late 2017 in connection with an internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Earlier this year, Legal Week research found two thirds of female lawyers said they had experienced sexual harassment while working in a law firm.