Allen & Overy (A&O) partner Mark Mansell was questioned Wednesday by members of Parliament about the advice he provided in a now-historic sexual harassment settlement involving disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as about the reputational impact of the firm’s involvement in the case.
Employment partner Mansell appeared before the Women and Equalities Committee Wednesday morning to testify in its inquiry into the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) relating to allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Mansell was called to address A&O’s role in advising Miramax, which Weinstein co-founded, in 1998 after the producer’s then-assistant Zelda Perkins accused him of sexual harassment. The firm’s role was detailed in a Financial Times article published last year.
It became evident during the committee session that documentation drawn up by Mansell for a settlement set out a provision that required Perkins to limit her disclosures in cases of civil or criminal legal process. The committee raised concerns about whether NDAs could be used to prohibit victims from participating in a criminal process.
Member of Parliament Maria Miller asked Mansell if he regretted drawing up the document in that way.
“If I was looking at dealing with that today, I would make it clearer that the ability to participate in a criminal process was not in any way restricted,” Mansell stated.
The A&O partner was also pressed on whether news of the firm’s involvement in Perkins’ NDA had been good for A&O’s reputation.
Mansell said that while he could not comment on the specifics, any case “where behavior is criticized and a lawyer or law firm is drawn into that” is “never a good thing for the lawyer or the law firm.”
Philip Davies, another member of Parliament, also questioned Mansell over the fees the firm received for its work, with Miller suggesting the committee would write to the firm to request that information.
Perkins, who also appeared before the committee, called for reforms to NDAs.
“I feel let down by the lack of law around them,” she said. “I’m sure all the lawyers were all working within the legal constraints, but it’s more shocking they were able to do that.”
She called for a “disincentive” to be created for lawyers to create this type of agreement.
Also appearing before the committee was employment partner Tamara Ludlow of Simons Muirhead & Burton, the London law firm that advised Perkins in 1998.
Ludlow and Mansell were asked how the use of NDAs could be improved, with Ludlow stating she would not advise clients to sign an NDA if they were not permitted to keep a copy of it. Perkins had not been allowed to have a copy of the signed NDA.
Mansell added that when lawyers are acting for individuals, they should be as uncombative and as sensitive as possible, recognizing that “for somebody to go through harassment is traumatic.”
The committee’s inquiry follows a recent warning by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the independent body that regulates solicitors and law firms in England and Wales, saying law firms should not use NDAs to prevent the reporting of professional misconduct within their own businesses. This came in the wake of several sexual harassment scandals that have rocked the profession.
Allegations of misconduct have emerged at a number of major law firms in recent months, as more and more women come forward to report examples of inappropriate behavior. Last week, Latham & Watkins chair and managing partner Bill Voge resigned from the firm after admitting to “communications of a sexual nature.” And Baker McKenzie recently commissioned an independent review of its response to an allegation of sexual assault of a female associate by a male partner. The associate received a payout and entered into a confidentiality agreement before leaving the firm.