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Betto sanctioned over “sexualised climate” at Paris firm

Sebastian Perry

20 January 2020

Jean-Georges Betto

Prominent French arbitration lawyer Jean-Georges Betto has been sanctioned by the Paris Bar Council for creating an “unhealthy, sexualised climate” at his law firm, following complaints by two former associates.

The Paris Bar Council’s disciplinary council ruled on 17 December that Betto was guilty of breaching “essential principles” of “humanity, dignity, delicacy, moderation and courtesy” – in violation of France’s national internal rules of the legal profession.

It ordered that Betto should be banned from practice for 12 months – though the part-suspension of his sentence means the ban will only last two months.

He will also be barred from membership of the Paris Bar Council, the National Bar Council and other professional organisations for five years.

Betto has been an elected member of the Paris Bar Council since 2018 and was rumoured to be planning to run for election as its president, or “bâtonnier”. The decision expressly bars him from standing for the position of bâtonnier or vice-bâtonnier during the five-year period.

The decision will only take effect if Betto fails in an appeal to the Paris Court of Appeal.

An unredacted version of the decision is understood to have been circulating widely among the French legal community in the past couple of weeks, though to GAR’s knowledge the sanction has so far only been reported in one French media outlet, L’Express.

GAR has received a copy of the decision but has decided not to publish it to preserve the anonymity of the complainants.

“A climate of fear and humiliation”

The alleged conduct occurred between 2013 and 2017 at Betto Seraglini, the Paris disputes boutique that Betto co-founded after leaving Hogan Lovells. The GAR 100 firm is also home to French former justice minister Dominique Perben. Following the departure of name partner Christophe Seraglini and two other partners in September last year, the firm is now known as Betto Perben Pradel Filhol.

Drawing extensively on witness testimony by various former employees, the disciplinary council found that Betto created an “unhealthy intimacy” with his associates and interns by making frequent confessions about his private life and sexual activities; and commenting publicly on their clothing, physical attributes and supposed sex lives.

He was also found to have used morning kisses to show favour to particular employees without appearing to be concerned whether they consented to such kisses; and to have massaged the shoulders of male and female associates in public.

Other inappropriate conduct included taking one of the complainants in his arms to apologise after publicly admonishing her; and running his finger down the back of another associate before accusing her of wearing inappropriate attire.

Such behaviour was found to have created a “climate of fear and humiliation” as well as “heavy anxiety” among associates and trainees beginning their careers.

The disciplinary council said the associates and trainees could “legitimately feel” as though Betto’s conduct stemmed from a “calculated process”. However, the council also said it could not completely exclude the possibility that his behaviour was linked to his “personality” and that he may have had no “Machiavellian” intent towards them.

Betto also shared literary works he had written under a pen name – entitled Bye Bye Conard and Yes We Kill – which contained violent and sexually explicit passages and in which he wrote suggestive dedications to members of the firm. The disciplinary council said this was “immature and highly disagreeable behaviour” and that he had used his position of authority for “inappropriate purposes”.

However, the disciplinary council notably did not find that Betto had breached a specific provision dealing with “harassment” in the Paris Bar’s internal rules. The decision indicates that this provision was one of the potential grounds on which the investigation proceeded, though GAR understands the term “harassment” was not expressly used in the original complaints.

The Paris Bar first included a provision on harassment and discrimination in its rules in 2015 and amended it in 2018 to provide that sexist acts with the purpose or effect of offending dignity or creating an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” constitute a breach of essential principles of the legal profession. The provisions cannot retroactively apply to conduct pre-dating the amendments.    

The decision also mentions testimony by a witness who said she had the impression that Betto had taken a photo of her bottom after he asked her to close a window. Betto denied doing so, suggesting that he was taking a screenshot of a social media post on his phone. The disciplinary council did not make a finding on the matter.

Various reports about the disciplinary proceedings appeared in the French press last year without Betto being identified by name. French investigative journal Mediapart alleged last November that an “influential member” of the Paris Bar Council had been accused of sexual harassment and assault by half a dozen young female associates or trainees.

In a statement to GAR, Betto says the decision shows those reports were inaccurate. “This decision is quite severe but it is a relief that it confirms that the rumours of sexual assault or harassment were false. I sincerely apologise to those whom my behaviour and jokes have offended. I am grateful to my family and to my team for their support.” 

One may speculate whether the disciplinary proceeding was a factor in the recent departures of three partners from Betto’s firm. It is striking that their moves were announced weeks after Betto was informed the procedure was moving to the trial phase. Seraglini left for Freshfields while partners Julien Fouret and Gaëlle Le Quillec moved to Eversheds Sutherland. Le Quillec is herself a member of the Paris Bar’s disciplinary council, though she was not part of the panel that ruled on Betto’s case. Seraglini, Fouret and Le Quillec were contacted for comment. 

Gaëlle Filhol, who was promoted to managing partner at Betto’s firm following the departures, said in a statement to GAR: “Our firm takes issues of work ethics and diversity very seriously. The facts at hand date back many years and have been the subject of a long and thorough investigation, including on our firm’s part. I am confident, and proud, that our firm offers a safe and positive environment for our team members.”

An 18-month proceeding

The sanction follows a three-stage proceeding that lasted 18 months and began after two individuals filed separate complaints against Betto in June 2018. For reasons that are unclear, it took a month for the Paris Bar to formally register receipt of the second complaint.

Both complainants were former associates who had already left the firm. One of the complainants was pregnant at the time she left.

The complaints were originally sent to two Paris Bar “referees” – Valence Borgia of K&L Gates and sole practitioner Benjamin Pitcho – who had been appointed under a new system introduced earlier that year under the leadership of then-bâtonnier Marie-Aimée Peyron to receive complaints of harassment and discrimination.

This was followed in July by an intervention from the Sorbonne Law School, where the first complainant was studying. The dean of the law school, François-Guy Trébulle, and two other professors, Anne-Marie Leroyer and Etienne Pataut, wrote a letter to Betto asking him to respond to her complaint; they also sent a copy of their letter to Peyron.

It is unclear exactly what prompted the academics to intercede; one possibility is that they were concerned the Bar Council might drag its feet in dealing with the complaint. Trébulle declined to comment.

Soon after receiving the letter, Peyron appointed an ethics committee to conduct an inquiry, consisting of former bâtonnier Yves Repiquet and litigation and arbitration lawyers Jacques Bouyssou and Delphine Pujos.

The ethics committee heard from various witnesses (including some who gave evidence anonymously) and from Betto himself, before recommending in December 2018 that a disciplinary procedure should be opened.

The Bar Council subsequently appointed Françoise Hecquet and Bernard Fau as the investigating authority. The pair heard from more witnesses and issued a report in July 2019, after which Betto was summoned to a hearing before a five-member trial panel which issued the final decision. The complainants were not parties to the proceedings.

The trial panel, composed of three women and two men, was initially chaired by Pierre Olivier-Sur before he stepped down and was replaced by family law specialist Étienne Lesage. The panel also included Mayer Brown disputes partner Emilie Vasseur, Carole Pascarel of FP Avocats,  Annabel Boccara of Airieau Meyrieux Associés and sole practitioner Bruno Marguet.

The disciplinary council ordered that its decision should be published in the Paris Bar’s bulletin but this is not expected to occur before Betto’s appeal is decided. Contacted by GAR, the Paris Bar’s communications department said it did not comment on individual cases and that it was up to the bâtonnier to decide on the form of publication and any appropriate redactions.

Olivier Cousi of Gide Loyrette Nouel, a media and entertainment lawyer who took over as bâtonnier at the start of this year, did not respond to a request for comment.

Concerns raised over procedure

GAR has spoken with sources close to the case who have expressed mixed feelings about the outcome. While they welcome the fact that Betto has been sanctioned for his conduct, some suggest the disciplinary council focused on the “sexual” aspects of Betto’s conduct at the expense of minimising the significance of other behaviour.

Some have also questioned whether the sanction was “rather light”. More than one source noted that the two-month ban from practice could be served out over the summer break, and that it would not prevent Betto from continuing to appear in arbitrations, where party representatives and arbitrators do not have to be lawyers.

Sources also expressed concern about the long duration of the proceedings; the fact that the complainants and witnesses were required to appear twice, for several hours each time, to give the same evidence before different panels; and a lack of transparency about the status of proceedings. They note that from a procedural standpoint the bâtonnier is the “claimant” in a disciplinary proceeding and that the complainants in this case had no access to exhibits or answers provided by Betto.

One source also describes it as “shocking” that the disciplinary decision was leaked and has been shared among the legal community in Paris without being redacted to preserve the anonymity of the victims – a fact that they say raises data protection issues and could deter other victims from bringing similar complaints.

In the shadow of #MeToo

The lack of transparency in Paris Bar disciplinary proceedings contrasts with the conduct of a recent case at the UK’s Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which ruled in October that former Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer restructuring partner Ryan Beckwith had breached professional principles by engaging in sexual activity with a drunk junior colleague. That case garnered national headlines and was the subject of nine days of open hearings attended by the press. Beckwith was fined £35,000 but was not struck off the roll of lawyers.

Sanctions against lawyers for sexual misconduct are rare in France. A report last October by French financial publication Les Echos said that, with the exception of one admonishment of a lawyer for “inappropriate behaviour” in 2012, “omerta has always been the rule” within the French legal community.

The paper says the first sanction against a French lawyer for sexual harrassment was a three-month ban from practice for Paris Bar member Mohamed Rais in September 2018 for engaging in inappropriate behaviour incompatible with the quality of a training supervisor. The paper said at the time that the Paris Bar was investigating four other cases.

Earlier this month, French criminal lawyer Alex Ursulet was struck off by the Paris Bar following allegations that he raped a former trainee; he denies the allegation and is pursuing an appeal, while he also faces a judicial investigation.

Another Paris-based lawyer, Pascal Agboyibor, was reportedly asked to leave Orrick in March last year following allegations of inappropriate conduct towards a member of his team. He is also understood to have had a disciplinary proceeding opened against him by the Paris Bar, though its status is unclear. Agboyibor – who has since launched his own Africa-focused law firm, Asafo & Co – was contacted for comment.

Inevitably these cases have been discussed against the backdrop of #MeToo –the campaign against sexual harassment and sexual assault that came to prominence following the exposure of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

GAR has previously reported on the self-reflection that #MeToo has triggered within the international arbitration community. It has also provoked reaction in the legal community in France, with Peyron reportedly making the fight against sexual harassment and discrimination a core part of her campaign for the presidency of the Paris Bar.

In March 2018, a group of lawyers including Borgia and Pitcho submitted a report to the Bar Council recommending the implementation of a proactive policy to combat harassment and sexual violence at the Paris Bar, including the appointment of a referee to whom complaints about harassment and discrimination can be submitted in confidence.

The Paris Bar amended its provisions on harassment and discrimination in the same year, with the National Council of Bars doing the same last year. In September 2019, both organisations also signed a charter in support of the fight against discrimination and harassment.

Before the Paris Bar Disciplinary Council

Trial panel

  • Étienne Lesage (president)*
  • Annabel Boccara
  • Carole Pascarel
  • Emilie Vasseur
  • Bruno Marguet

* Replaced Pierre-Olivier Sur

Counsel to the prosecuting authority

  • Xavier Autain of Lussan
  • Hélène Poivey-Leclercq

Counsel to Jean-Georges Betto

  • Dhonte & Associés

Stéphane Dhonte

 

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