White & Case fired London partner depressed at wife’s cancer in’toxic’ culture, tribunal told

A former partner in the London office of White & Case has accused the US law firm of having a “toxic” culture, alleging it forced him out while he was suffering depression caused by his wife’s death from cancer.

Michael Wistow, the firm’s former Emea co-head of tax, has taken White & Case and one of its London partners, Oliver Brettle, to an employment tribunal for disability discrimination.

Wistow’s claim said he was suffering from a disability from at least June 2019 which had an impact on his work and day-to-day household tasks such as paying bills.

White & Case and Brettle deny wrongdoing. The firm is arguing that Wistow was asked to leave because of poor performance, according to documents setting out their defense to his claim.

READ Dechert, the SFO, and ENRC: A trial of brown envelopes, lies, and millions in fees

Wistow said the firm asked him to leave in May 2019 while he was suffering from depression and anxiety triggered by his wife’s battle with cancer and her death in August 2019.

“The respondents do not doubt… the genuineness of his feelings of sadness and grief as a result of this,” White & Case’s defense to the claim said. “However … sadness and grief are not disabilities as defined in the Equality Act” ..

Wistow also criticised what he said was the firm’s “toxic” culture and the lack of empathy he received from his fellow partners, despite their knowledge of his wife’s illness.

White & Case’s defense said Wistow’s attempt to “traduce” the culture and partners of the firm was irrelevant to the case at hand.

An email dated 23 April 2019 between various unnamed White & Case partners included in Wistow’s claim showed what he said was the lack of “compassion” he received.

“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. 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, ”the email said.

Wistow was previously a partner at law firms Clifford Chance and BLP. He joined White & Case in London in October 2016 and soon began experiencing what he described as the “terrible environment” at the firm, according to a document setting out his claim.

Wistow said he was criticised by other partners after he turned down a meeting soon after joining the firm to spend the day with his wife on her birthday.

READ Why lawyers want to go solo: It’s’very difficult’ to change the culture in a law firm

“I proceeded to take that day off as intended but understand that there were internal emails at or around this time in which my decision to do so was criticised,” Wistow’s claim said.

He said another partner had told him that partners in the firm were “laughing at me taking that day off and showing my’lack of commitment.’”

Wistow said that in an appraisal in March 2019 his compensation was cut because he was a “low performer” compared to M & A partners at the firm and also due to “’unattributed soundings’ from others claiming that I was disruptive,” Wistow said he was told, according to his claim.

He said the lack of reassurance he received from senior partners at the firm when he sought help following his negative appraisal was an illustration of “how completely unsupportive White & Case was of me and of the toxic work environment created by senior management in White & Case’s London office, ”his claim said.

Wistow ultimately left the firm in December 2020 after his membership of the firm’s partnership was terminated. He is now head of tax at law firm McCarthy Denning.

White & Case said it is a “matter of regret” that Wistow has criticised the firm in his claim.

“Not only were his figures poor, but he failed to build harmonious working relationships with his colleagues,” the firm’s defense said.

White & Case said that whether or not Wistow did suffer from any mental impairment, its effect did not have a substantial impact on his day-to-day activities.

The firm said if Wistow is able to prove he suffered substantial impact from any mental impairment, the dates of any adverse effects were narrower than Wistow contends, starting later, and ending earlier.

Wistow’s claim was the subject of a preliminary hearing at the London Central employment tribunal this week to decide whether he was disabled, and if so, for what time period.

A spokesperson for White & Case said Wistow’s complaints had been investigated by an external barrister before he left the firm with no wrongdoing found.

READ Sign up here for our weekly newsletter on the City’s legal sector

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email James Booth