Amid the violence and global turmoil created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an internal scuffle that has played out online through social media has been taking place at global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.
After a few media outlets reported on Monday that the Am Law firm had sent out an internal memo issuing a firm-wide ban preventing Norton Rose lawyers from commenting on sanctions implemented against Russia following its attack on Ukraine, the chair of Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, Walied Soliman, posted a firm and angry-sounding message on Linkedin and Twitter in which he encouraged all partners and colleagues to speak out on the Ukraine situation.
“Chairman of Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, here. I want to be absolutely clear: we stand with the people of Ukraine. Period. I encourage all of our partners and colleagues to speak out. No other position on this crisis is remotely acceptable and is completely disavowed,” Soliman wrote.
Reaction to the reports about the internal memo from others in the legal community, including from some at the top of the profession, was swift and harsh.
“To my friends at Norton Rose Fulbright—are you serious?! In this defining moment for humanity, which side of history are you choosing?” George Casey, global managing partner at Shearman & Sterling, wrote on LinkedIn.
Soliman’s public response was also swift, as well as emphatic and blunt. Regardless of the global firm’s position, he wrote, support for the Ukrainian people was “the unequivocal position of the Canadian partnership.”
He also noted that the firm’s global office may have circulated such a memo but he was unaware of its context.
Soliman is well known in Canada and abroad for his support of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism initiatives. He did not respond to a request for comment but the firm put out a statement saying the Canadian partnership has donated $100,000 to the Canadian Red Cross’s Ukraine appeal, and members of the firm continue to raise more funds. The Canadian branch of the firm, which is structured as a Swiss verein, also is exploring ways to provide legal support to Ukrainians seeking refuge in Canada, the statement said.
According to the reports, by Bloomberg and The Lawyer, the internal memo told staff to “please refrain from providing any commentary, whether to the media, on social media channels, in social situations, in external presentations or any other channel.”
Inside Norton Rose, at least one lawyer who asked not to be identified backed Soliman’s very public stance. “Our Canadian chair was vocal on his support of Ukraine yesterday and we all echo that,” the lawyer said.
After the public backlash, Norton Rose attempted to clarify its position Tuesday, saying that it is standard to issue internal notices on developing legal and regulatory matters but it is not preventing members of the firm from voicing their views on the invasion of Ukraine.
Norton Rose has 23 lawyers based in its office in Moscow, according to the firm’s website. It has an extensive Russian client list that includes many large, state-owned entities facing international sanctions, such as VTB bank, Rosneft Oil Co., and state energy giant Gazprom.
Other international firms with offices in Moscow have told Law.com that often they are reluctant to provide any information on their activities in Russia because they fear there may be reprisals against lawyers and staff still in Russia. Their priority, they said, is to make sure their colleagues in Moscow are safe.
But if that was the intent of Norton Rose’s internal memo, the backlash suggests that message did not come through.
Law.com International also reached out to other large Canadian firms regarding the impact sanctions are having on client relationships and asked them if they are dropping any clients—a move being made by some other global law firms.
McCarthy Tétrault CEO Dave Leonard said the firm’s policy is not to comment on client matters but “like all Canadian organizations, our firm is subject to economic sanctions laws regarding Ukraine and Russia and we have processes in place to ensure we are fully compliant with those requirements.”
But Leonard added, “I, like many, was shocked and saddened by the invasion of Ukraine.” He said the firm will be donating to relief efforts and calling on the Canadian government to pursue all diplomatic solutions to resolve the conflict and ensure those who breach international law are held accountable.
Jessica Seah and Rose Walker contributed to this story.