News that US firm Shearman & Sterling sacked a London associate after he allegedly sexually harassed a vacation scheme student in a West End strip club sparked a heated debate among Lawyer 2B readers. Corinne McPartland believes students should go into vacation schemes with their eyes open and asks: are lap-dancing or strip clubs the right type of venue for corporate entertainment?
The desperation among potential lawyers to stand out from the crowd while on law firm vacation schemes seems to have reached new heights. Gone are the days when the keen wannabe lawyer tentatively took the time to make that perfect cup of tea for a senior partner and agonised over the ideal print shade on a photocopying task.
Now the need for students to be remembered by potential future employees is so high that they seem to be prepared to do absolutely anything to stick in a partners memory. And after all their hard work then maybe, just maybe, they might be closer to securing that all-important training contract with a coveted City firm.
So what’s new? you may ask. Students have been pimping their souls to the devil for years in a bid to get to the top. And that is what we thought until the story of the Shearman & Sterling vacation scheme student hit the headlines in July earlier this year.
The firm found itself involved in a major scandal after it sacked one of its associates following a vacation students claim that she had been sexually harassed by the associate after he had taken her to a West End strip club.
The vacation student, who has subsequently accepted a training contract position with another firm, alleged that she was taken to a strip club on Friday 18 July by the Shearman associate after drinks in the Light Bar, Shoreditch High Street, which is close to Shearmans London office.
A spokesman for the firm confirmed at the time that at least one partner was present at these drinks. It is understood that, at around 10pm, the group moved on to the Chinawhite nightclub in Piccadilly, where a guest list reservation had been made. However, the associate and the vacation student subsequently separated from the main group and went to The Windmill strip club in Soho.
The vacation student claimed she did not realise she was entering a strip club and that she told the associate she should leave, but that he responded that he had already paid the entrance fee and they should stay a while longer.
Shearman later confirmed that the associate paid the entrance fee to the strip club on the firms credit card.
The associate is then alleged to have begun making sexually suggestive remarks and to have touched the vacation student inappropriately. The vacation student said she had left the club in tears and hired a taxi home shortly afterwards.
She filed a complaint with Shearmans’ HR department a week later, on 24 July, because she said she wanted to finish the last week of her vacation placement before an internal investigation began.
A statement issued by Shearman at the time read: “A student on our UK summer vacation scheme lodged a complaint regarding the conduct of one of the firms associates during an informal social evening outside the offices.”
“Shearman takes such matters very seriously and, following a full investigation in accordance with internal disciplinary procedures, the associate has now left the firm.”
So what does this story teach us? Should this year’s Christmas vacation students stay away from their firms annual festive karaoke session and reject an invite for a drink down the pub after work? Definitely not, according to many students.
“If you’re lucky enough to get a vac scheme placement with a big firm, you’d do anything to make a good impression,” says Christopher Kerr, a student at Nottingham Trent University and vice-president of the student law society.
Theres a lot of pressure on the student because they want to please and anything the firm says goes. In some cases I think students have to let their moral stance slip because they’re fighting for a training contract.
Kerr says he understands why the student initially went to the club with the associate, because he has felt the pressure to make a good impression at many corporate events.
“When I read the story I was surprised, but I realised straight away why she’d gone ahead with it,” says Kerr. “I’ve been out drinking with firms and you try to keep up and be sociable, but you also have to be on your guard because you want to create a good impression.”
But this is far from being the first time a law firm has found itself in the middle of a strip club scandal. A partner at magic circle firm Clifford Chance found himself in hot water back in 2002 when it was revealed that he had frequented a branch of Spearmint Rhino, a popular lap-dancing establishment in the heart of central London, perhaps foolishly taking some female journalists with him.
After an organised night out for Clifford Chance partners and legal journalists had come to an end at 10.30pm, a breakaway group decided to continue the party elsewhere in town which wound up being the strip club.
There seems to be a very thin line between what is deemed a corporate event and a social night out organised by employees.
One law firm partner thinks that, if you are out drinking with work colleagues, whether it be an event organised by work or by one by your peers, you always have to be aware about what situations you are putting yourself in.
“Our firm organises a lot of social events for employees and I think the lines blurred between what is something organised by the organisation and what goes on afterwards,” he explains. “We haven’t been to any strip clubs with clients or as part of a corporate event. But that isn’t to say it doesn’t go on, because I know it does.”
“In the Shearman case I think the associate was completely wrong to take the vacation student to the club, because I know when we have students come to us they’re very keen to impress and he sadly took advantage of that power.”
Sarah Boston, who is studying her LPC at Bristol Institute of Legal Practice, insists that while there is a great deal of pressure on a student undertaking a vacation scheme, the need to impress should not blur your moral judgement.
“The need to impress is very high, I think not just from the student, but from the firm as well, because they want to recruit the best people,” Boston says. “You feel as though you’re on a week-long interview and the pressure to perform is tremendous. But that doesn’t mean that you have to go to strip clubs or anything just because an associate says so.”
Some feel that sacking the associate in question was an exceptionally harsh punishment for something that goes on in the City all the time, with one female Ashurst vacation student blaming the girl for being naive.
“I went on a vac scheme with Ashurst, which is the same building as Shearman & Sterling, and people were joking about it. Many of them blamed her for being too drunk to see what was happening,” she says.
Peter Stringfellow, owner of two famous Stringfellows-branded central London clubs, says he has noticed an increase in corporate custom particularly when organisations are schmoozing clients.
He claims that some of the biggest names in banking you can think of have used his clubs for executive purposes. Other fans of Stringfellows include Sky Television, Coca-Cola and Merrill Lynch, according to newspaper reports.
Samir Pasha, an Exeter University student and bar chair of the Lyonesse Law Society, believes joining in with corporate functions is all part of getting your foot in the door.
“I don’t agree with the fact that he took her to a strip club, but there is a certain amount of socialising you have to do, he says, especially if you want to stand out from the crowd.”
“At the end of the day these guys are the gatekeepers to your career. You have to take the troughs with the peaks, and this was just a dark side to this otherwise brilliant profession.”
So if high-profile law firms are happy to woo their business contacts and trainees in the company of scantily clad women, what impact will this have on the legal profession? And should trainees be bracing themselves for a resurgence of the sleazy, sun-drenched world of corporate culture that dominated the 1980s? Let’s hope not.