In the wake of several sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the legal profession, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the independent regulatory body that regulates solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, has warned law firms not to use nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct.
The SRA issued a warning notice on Monday reminding firms that any potential professional misconduct by a person or firm should be reported to the regulator, including sexual harassment or misconduct.
NDAs, which are often 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.
“NDAs are widely used to protect commercial interests, confidentiality, and, in some circumstances, reputation,” the SRA said in a statement. “However, they should not be used to prevent people from reporting wrongdoing to the relevant authorities, such as the police or a regulator.”
The SRA also revealed that between November 2015 and October 2017, it received 21 complaints relating to such allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
“The public and the profession expect solicitors to act with integrity and uphold the rule of law—and most do,” said SRA chief executive Paul Philip. “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 hired Simmons & Simmons to lead the review of its response to the incident, which occurred several years ago.
The allegations center 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 Baker McKenzie 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.
He tendered his resignation after reports surfaced that he had been terminated by Morrison & Foerster in late 2017 in connection with an internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Earlier this year, The American Lawyer’s London-based sibling publication Legal Week found that two-thirds of female lawyers said they had experienced sexual harassment while working in a law firm.