Former White & Case U.K. tax partner Michael Wistow has accused the firm of disability discrimination, claiming the firm had a “toxic work environment”, in part due to the behaviour of senior management.
The employment claim has been brought against both White & Case and Oliver Brettle, who sits on the firm’s global executive committee.
In preliminary tribunal hearings in London, Wistow claimed to have suffered from mixed anxiety and depression since at least October 2018, which his legal team argued constitutes a mental impairment.
The tribunal is tasked with deciding whether Wistow’s symptoms of mental distress constituted a disability.
In his opening note, Jonathan Cohen QC of Littleton Chambers, who is representing White & Case, said Wistow was expelled from the partnership at White & Case in November 2020 and left the firm the following month.
In August 2019, the lawyer’s wife, who had been ill with cancer, passed away.
Wistow claimed: “At the time it felt like I was being threatened if I didn’t just shut up and put up. White & Case knew that I was in a very difficult place in my personal life and it felt that this meant I could be treated however they pleased.”
He added: “This was hugely demoralising for me and I felt worthless.”
Responding to Wistow’s claims, Cohen wrote: “The respondents do not doubt (and nothing that they say or do during this hearing is intended to doubt) the genuineness of his feelings of sadness and grief as a result of this. However, as well-known authority explains, sadness and grief are not disabilities as defined in the Equality Act.”
Wistow said that when he expressed exasperation at being cut out of key recruitment, he was categorised as a bully, adding: “In hindsight, the actions of White & Case were bullying.”
In one instance, Wistow described a 2019 encounter with former global co-head of private equity Ian Bagshaw, who left the firm in 2021, in which Wistow expressed concerns about partners at the firm circulating falsehoods about him.
In his statement, Wistow wrote: “In response, Ian told me to stop being a ‘dick’ and acting like some kind of ‘fucking white knight’ regarding my concerns in respect of untruths about me that were circulating within the firm as he said ‘everybody lies, what’s the big deal’.”
In response, Cohen argued in his opening note that details such as these were “an attempt to traduce the First Respondent [White & Case], its culture and its partners”. He insisted that details of White & Case’s workplace environment were irrelevant, writing: “This evidence has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”
The QC went on to argue that Wistow “did not fulfill the promises of business that he would generate, made by him during his recruitment.”
He added: “Not only were his figures poor, but he failed to build harmonious working relationships with his colleagues.”
Further to this, Cohen made the point that prior to Wistow’s expulsion from the partnership at White & Case, the firm had offered him an “opportunity to leave its partnership of his own volition, with his reputation fully preserved”.
He noted that Wistow had not taken this opportunity, and described the tribunal as “an ex-post-facto attempt to avoid confronting the quality of his own performance”.
Wistow first joined White & Case in October 2016, and was the firm’s co-head of EMEA tax. He previously spent nine years at Berwin Leighton Paisner, and was at Clifford Chance between 1988 and 2007 – becoming a partner in 1997. He now works as a partner at McCarthy Denning.
Wistow’s written evidence also included an excerpt from an email dated 23 April 2019 between members of the firm, in which one individual wrote: “I would hope that we are all able to continue to conduct ourselves professionally and not bring our personal issues into the office in any kind of manner that is disruptive to the group.”
They added: “Either MW [Michael Wistow] is the unluckiest man alive in his personal life that I have ever come across… or else he has a very active imagination. I really don’t know.”
A person with knowledge of the situation said the partner who had written that email was no longer at White & Case.
No date has yet been confirmed for a verdict. This hearing will decide whether Wistow should be classed as having a disability, with a fuller hearing expected in the Autumn.
When contacted about the hearing, White & Case declined to provide a statement. The firm confirmed previous press reports that prior to Wistow’s departure from the firm, it had appointed an independent, external barrister to investigate complaints made by him, but added the investigator had found no wrongdoing by White & Case, its partners or employees.
Michael Wistow declined to comment. Ian Bagshaw did not provide a comment at the time of publication.