Group of 300 senior lawyers push for Britain to stay in Europe

Written by Lindsay Fortado, Legal Correspondent, Financial Times. Published on on January, 22 2016.

A group of 300 senior City lawyers, led by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner John Davies, has banded together to support Britain’s membership of the EU.

No big law firms have publicly spoken out on the issue so far but top lawyers at several firms are privately considering whether to depart from neutrality because of the effect they believe an exit would have on business.

Lawyers are generally averse to stating opinions on political issues, outside of the most mundane and safe topics, because they always have clients who fall on either side of a debate.

But in the case of Brexit, partners are aware of the significant impact it could have on their business and the business of their clients, they said.

David Morley, senior partner at Allen & Overy, described Brexit as “the defining issue for the UK, for the economy, if not society as a whole, for a generation”.

“Typically law firms wouldn’t get involved in politics as we have to work with governments and we don’t like to take positions which clients might disagree with but this is different,” he said.

Mr Davies’s group, named “Lawyers — In for Britain”, said its members were acting as individuals and not on behalf of their law firms and that the legal advice they give remains neutral.

“Personally I feel that lawyers can be quite effective, even though we’re not the most popular people in the world,” Mr Davies said. “In given communities lawyers can have a reputation for being trustworthy about the facts, so if we’re able to produce something, that may help.

David Cameron is hoping to negotiate a new settlement between Britain and the 27 other members of the EU before a promised referendum on the UK’s continued participation in a reformed Europe

“I feel strongly that the UK’s economic future and security is better protected as being part of the European Union, so I took a view before the general election that it is something I ought to take an interest in,” Mr Davies said. “I don’t have a political background, I haven’t been involved in any party.”

Others in the group include Stephen Kon, senior partner at King & Wood Mallesons; Martin Coleman at Norton Rose Fulbright; Rhodri Thompson QC of Matrix Chambers; Andrew Renshaw at Freshfields; Stephen Kinsella at Sidley Austin; and Kevin Coates from the European Commission.

The group had held several meetings, including in November at the office of Norton Rose Fulbright where Sir Mike Rake, chairman of BTGroup; Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister; and Roland Rudd, the founder of the public relations firm Finsbury, gave their views on Brexit, Mr Davies said. The group is preparing a campaign document it aims to publish in late February.

A group of more junior lawyers, led by Darren Jones at Bond Dickinson, has also sprung up this month and is supporting Mr Davies’ group. Informally, it is calling itself “Young Lawyers Network — Stronger In” and currently claims 38 members.

“You’ll probably find that young people as a whole have a different viewpoint, we have different voices to add to the debate,” he said

The younger group was focusing on issues including the implications for European travel, roaming charges, a digital single market, and the Erasmus programme that allows for student exchanges in the EU, Mr Jones said, and was contacting British universities to help with its campaign.

There are significant implications for our clients but also for our country,” he said. “There are a lot of legal professionals that are concerned about it and are willing to take steps.”

Neither Mr Davies nor Mr Jones knew of any lawyers forming groups to support the Out campaign.

Senior lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills and Hogan Lovells were said to be considering whether to take a stance on the issue. Similarly, Freshfields management is understood to support Mr Davies’ work but is not ready for the firm to take a position.

“About a third of our revenue is in the UK and another third in Europe,” said Mr Morley, of A&O. “We were able to grow because of EU harmonisation and the recognition of professional qualifications, which meant we could go into business with German, French and Dutch lawyers, which then laid the foundation for our global business. Would we still have mutual recognition? Would we still be able to continue in the same way? The biggest issue is the uncertainty.”

“Clifford Chance would never take a stance,” said Simon Gleeson, a financial regulation partner at the firm. “We have clients on both sides of this particular divide. If you want to give

Still, “the practice of the big law firms would be affected, we would suffer very badly from an exit”, Mr Gleeson admitted. “It’s sort of like being a doctor in the plague, you may be very busy while it’s going on, but it doesn’t bode well for the long-term.”

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