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In the hot seat
Law Society Gazette – 16 June 2005

Lawyers who act for controversial clients face everything from death threats to unwanted pizza deliveries. Mark Smulian asks some of the people in the firing line how they cope with it

The office telephone is jammed. Your e-mail inbox contains 1,000 abusive messages. There is a mob of angry people at the office street door shouting menacingly. And why were washing machines unexpectedly delivered to your home this morning?

Some or all of this has been experienced by both solicitors who act for controversial clients, and by those clients' in-house lawyers.

A few years ago, it dawned on protest groups, mainly those concerned with animal rights, anti-militarism and environmental issues, that one new way to put pressure on companies in these industries was to target their professional advisers.

It requires no great ingenuity to find out who acts as a company's lawyer - a threatening legal letter will give that away - and protest groups with sufficient activists can easily cause a nuisance, or worse, to the solicitors involved.

The aim of such harassment is to impede the operations of companies to which protesters object by making it difficult for them to secure professional advisers.

Protests need not be violent - indeed they usually are not. But the vulnerability of law firms' telephone and e-mail systems means that work can be seriously disrupted anonymously and from a distance, with more effect than would be gained by a group of people waving placards in the street, though that happens too.

Some lawyers, understandably, avoid clients who attract this sort of attention.

But one who goes out of his way to find them is Tim Lawson-Cruttenden, principal of his own central London firm. He specialises in acting for such clients. Although this originally arose by chance, he cites an ideological motive too.

'I got into this by accident,' he says. 'I wrote a couple of books on the law on harassment and co-authored the Stalking Bill in 1996 which became the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The significance of that is the power of arrest, which means that the police can no longer say it is just a civil matter.'

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden says he acts for clients facing threats to their business from protests because 'I believe in liberal democracy and because these people are anti-democratic. 'I'm answerable to the courts, the Law Society and the police for my activities, and they are answerable to nobody. I am democratic and they are not and I don't like being intimidated.'

He adds: 'It seems to be that one can defend a paedophile or murderer and that is fine. But if you defend a pharmaceutical firm, that is not fine. I find that amazing.'

His high profile in this professional niche has come at a cost. There has been 'a small number of threatening messages against me', he says, which the police took seriously as they threatened grievous bodily harm and carried out unsuccessful DNA tests to try to find the perpetrator.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden has felt forced to abandon his former open-door policy at his office.

'We have to be careful with security,' he says. 'I don't want to give away too much but we have security intercoms, otherwise we would have had activists coming in.

'They do silly things like using up the photocopier and messing around with computers if they get in, which they try to say is the practice of non-violence.'

Computer and telephone blockade attempts are common and the firm takes counter-measures, though he says blockades can sometimes be so effective that 'I have even had judges complain that I'm not answering the phone, when in fact it is blockaded'.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden has acted for firms in the fur trade and for the guinea pig-breeding establishment Darley Oaks Farm. Its owner's mother-in-law's corpse was disinterred from a cemetery by, it is believed, animal rights protesters.

He has acted for the past few months for defence company EDO since, he says, City law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain resigned the business after receiving protest e-mails. Reynolds Porter Chamberlain was reluctant to discuss this issue. A spokesman said: 'We were instructed in relation to a case by EDO but the instructions ceased at our request in mid-February.'

Last month, a dozen activists held a noisy protest outside the firm's offices over its work for EDO, accusing Lawson-Cruttendon & Co of attempting to suppress rights to freedom of expression by representing EDO in its bid to obtain an injunction against campaigners who are alleged to have targeted the business.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden says some larger law firms do not want this controversial business for economic reasons.

'Getting an injunction might cost 15-25,000, and a lot of firms do not want to risk the harassment for that,' he says. Finding evidence against perpetrators is difficult, he says. A recent change in the law has made it an offence to cause economic damage as part of an animal rights protest, but he says, 'it is all a matter of conspiracy and proving it is the problem'.

Rupert Bondy, general counsel at pharmaceutical firm Glaxo SmithKline, was targeted and received threats at his home in the US over animal rights issues.

He did not wish to comment, but a company spokesman said: 'We are not keen to talk about this sort of thing, but there has been a lot of it with demonstrations at people's homes, cars, [unwanted] orders of white goods, demonstrations at offices and so on.

'We have been active in urging the government to new legislation such as that against causing economic damage over animal rights issues.'

The firm argues that it is required to carry out animal testing 'because regulations demand that before we put stuff into humans, we put it into animals', and so it could not cease this activity.

While firms the size of Glaxo are 'robust enough to deal with it', it is concerned about threats made to suppliers who may not be so well equipped, the spokesman said.

Companies need not be directly involved in controversy to be targeted. There were reports last year that Marks & Spencer had come to the attention of animal rights activists because it rented premises from industrial gases group BOC, their intended target. General counsel Robert Ivens said no legal action needed to be taken.

A more unusual case has seen City firm Allen & Overy dragged into the controversy over the takeover of Manchester United by the US businessman Malcolm Glazer and his family.

Partners, including Andrew Ballheimer, who led the work, received 'a barrage of e-mails, phone calls and pizza deliveries and so on from aggrieved fans', says Jo Shepherd, spokeswoman for the firm's corporate practice.

Allen & Overy had to increase security, since its involvement in mergers and acquisitions did not normally expose it to harassment.

Financial and public relations advisers acting for Mr Glazer and his family stood down in face of similar protests, Ms Shepherd says, 'but we decided not to because they are our client and legal advisers are in a slightly different position to others'.

E-mails were sent to almost everyone in the firm connected with the case. Partners' names were freely available on the firm's Web site, as is usual with most practices, but Ms Shepherd points out that even had this not been the case, it would not be difficult for anyone to work out the firm's e-mail addresses.

Some e-mails were individual but others were sent en masse, possibly in a bid to crash the system.

'Everyone here gets hundreds of e-mails each day and I imagine it would be very difficult to crash it; law firms have very robust systems,' she says.

The content of the messages tended to be angry rather than threatening and there were no demonstrations at Allen & Overy offices, so the firm did not make any legal threats against those involved.

Ms Shepherd says: 'It was just lots of messages, but you never know for certain what some threats might mean or might turn out to be and you have to be extra vigilant.

'You will find most City institutions, not just law firms, have had this kind of thing.'

Law firms have become more sophisticated in their responses and the law has tightened, but the protesters' ingenuity in targeting firms may not be deterred.

Mark Smulian is a freelance journalist