A senior partner at law firm Arthur Cox said she believed sacked lawyer Ammi Burke had a ‘victim mentality’ and ‘no understanding of how to behave in an office environment’ after Ms Burke approached her in his office for an invitation to lunch just two weeks after his first post-qualifying placement.
Ammi’s legal skills are not in question…but it takes so much more to be successful in a law firm,” the partner told the Workplace Relations Commission today.
Ms Burke, of Castlebar Co Mayo, who denies the associate’s account of their meeting, has filed a claim under Section 8 of the Unfair Dismissal Act against Arthur Cox Solicitors, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2, alleging that she had been wrongfully terminated by the firm on November 12, 2019.
Opening her application today, Ms Burke said she had an ‘exemplary and unblemished’ three-and-a-half-year employment record as a trainee and newly qualified associate with Arthur Cox up to that point.
“It was a shock dismissal,” she said, saying she had already received positive reviews and was never told of her conduct by a partner in HR or the finance department where she was working.
“After my dismissal I was the subject of comments and gossip online,” she said, before an article appeared on a UK legal news website about what happened. had passed.
She said the commission would hear evidence that the author of the story had been in contact with Arthur Cox before it was published and that the company “made no effort to prevent the publication of this article”.
Ms Burke said reputational damage was a major part of her claim and argued reinstatement was the only way to restore her reputation within Ireland’s “close-knit” legal industry.
“Unfortunately what happened was that Ms Burke’s relationships with three of the six main partners in the banking department broke down following interactions with the partners – for example to make an employment relationship contractual unsustainable and untenable,” said Peter Ward SC, defending Arthur Cox’s case.
“The firm has lost confidence in the plaintiff as an employee and an attorney due to the nature and content of these communications,” he said.
He said that as a result she was fired in accordance with her contract – and that the company had ‘provided’ her with three months’ salary, €17,500, plus an ex gratia payment of €70,000 – that he said that Ms Burke “has accepted and kept to this day”.
He said the company objected to reinstatement being considered a potential remedy should Ms Burke win her case.
Ultan Shannon, a partner in Arthur Cox’s banking and finance group, said Ms Burke did a trainee rotation in the department before being placed there as a newly qualified barrister in January 2019 – which he said. accepted after being informed of some “reluctance” to accept him into another practice group.
“I had worked with Ammi, we needed NQ [newly-qualified solicitors]… I don’t want anyone to think otherwise, we wanted Ammi because she was good,” he said.
He said the banking and finance group’s senior partner, Gráinne Hennessy, had returned from a sabbatical in January 2019 and had pre-arranged with two of the team’s new lawyers to have lunch with them upon her return – after have worked with them before.
Ms Hennessy told her that Ms Burke had come to her office to ‘try it out’ during the lunch invitation, telling her that she felt ‘left out’ and had been ‘treated differently’ from other new lawyers and that this suggested that his work was not held in the same regard as theirs.
He said Gráinne Hennessy was “shocked” by the interaction.
“I too left the room in shock,” he said. “Ammi just started here and had a problem with one of the most senior associates in the business,” he said. “It was kind of like a kick that it happened. Gráinne Hennessy would look at me and ask: ‘Is this the person you recommended to join our group?’ »
He said he thought the lunch invitation was ‘innocent’ and a ‘polite gesture’ and that Ms Burke had demonstrated ‘lack of conscience’ and suggested in the circumstances, even though there had been an offense , the “normal” response would have been to “say nothing”.
Ms Hennessy told the committee in evidence today that Ms Burke came in and stood over her at her desk in January ‘very aggressively’ and said she found it ‘intimidating’ .
Ms Burke told him she was “disgusted” and “offended” by his email, she said.
Ms Hennessy said she thought she must have sent the wrong email with the lunch invitation.
“I said I was really sorry for the way I could have put it… I had to apologize at least eight times,” she said and said she couldn’t see still not sure how Mrs. Burke had taken offense to the email.
Her assessment after the incident was that Ms Burke “is someone with a victim mentality – someone who takes offense to any interaction”, she said. “No judgment, no understanding of how to behave in an office environment. If she’s like that with me, how is she with interns or associates?” she added.
Ms Burke said she would ‘refute’ Ms Hennessy’s account of their interaction in her own evidence.
She told him that the rating of her interpersonal skills was at odds with her performance reviews until July 2019, when managers rated her highly for ‘teamwork’ and did not discuss her interaction with Ms. Hennessy until she raised her at their request. , she argued.
Ms Hennessy argued that the forms Ms Burke was referring to were ‘one size fits all’ and that expectations differed significantly based on experience.
“All of this saddens me,” Ms Hennessy said. “Ammi’s legal skills are not in question – she’s a bright girl, her drafting is good, but it takes so much more to be successful in a law firm,” she said.
In November 2019, Mr Shannon told the Commission that the partner who shared an office with Ms Burke, Sinéad Cantillon, “completely broke down in front of me”, saying she had already asked four times to be moved and “Couldn’t take it anymore.”
He agreed to move her – and the next day Ms Burke came and asked what had happened.
He said he spoke to Ms Cantillon and asked Ms Burke for her side of the story – but ‘the shutters went down’ and Ms Burke declined to elaborate.
He said that on November 11, Ms Burke returned to his office and told him she “felt like an outcast” in the office by herself.
She repeatedly said, “I take this very seriously,” he said.
“I told Ammi: ‘If there is any doubt, we take this very seriously,'” he said – and following this a decision was made to terminate his employment .
Today’s hearing was chaired by Kevin Baneham, who last week rejected a request by Ms Burke to recuse herself after alleging he was a Labor ‘friend’ and ‘comrade’ of the lead attorney for Arthur Cox, Mr. Ward.
Mr. Baneham rendered his decision on the preliminary issue in correspondence to the parties.
The case is expected to continue with defense evidence tomorrow.