Money and Scandal: How Dechert’s Neil Gerrard Became London’s Most Controversial Lawyer

Two white-collar partners sit down to talk with a reporter at Dechert’s London’s headquarters. Small-talk ensues. Some minutes later, the firm’s then-head of white-collar crime, Neil Gerrard , walks in. The discussion soon turns to the serious business of bribery, then onto how companies can protect themselves in dawn-raid situations. Gerrard speaks like one in absolute command of his trade: expansive and learned. One of the other partners casually gets up to make a coffee. The coffee-machine hisses violently, Gerrard halts mid-sentence. He glances ferociously at the partner, who winces, mouths ‘sorry’, and returns bashfully to his seat. With his cappuccino.

“That’s how it is, like a dad and his kids,” one person with knowledge of the relationship said at the time. “An angry dad, who doesn’t like backchat.”

How Gerrard ran his department, his relationship with his peers, and his clients, goes to the heart of the many controversies that have tipped the powerful Philadelphia law firm into the reputational, and financial, melee it now finds itself in. The biggest of these is the highly publicized, swashbuckling ENRC case, a cause célèbre that in May reached its apparent conclusion at London’s High Court which made several findings against Dechert and Gerrard concerning breaches of duty.

For several people, the case was, as one person phrased it, an instance of the firm putting “money first”, even “at cost to the client”. For ex-police officer Gerrard, it is a compendium of the tendencies and tactics that have made him, arguably, the most controversial lawyer in the City of London.

But who is Gerrard, the man that until now Dechert stood by for 10 extraordinarily contentious years, but whose actions could leave them with a legal bill in the tens of millions? A misunderstood rainmaker? Or, as a lawyer in separate proceedings against Gerrard described him, nothing more than a “bent copper”?

To answer these questions, International spoke with a range of people who worked with and opposite Gerrard over the course of a colorful career that has garnered almost as much praise as intrigue, and has seldom been out of the spotlight.

Gerrard, via his lawyer, Charles Fussell, declined to comment on the points made in this article.

Bobby to Big Biller

There are experienced solicitors. Then there’s Neil Gerrard, 67, who, before embarking on his more-than-30-year career as a solicitor, lived a very different life. In the 70s and 80s, he was an officer with London’s Metropolitan Police in Peckham.

He was also a keen sportsman with a talent for hurdling, and later, sailing.

As a teenaged police cadet, he regularly represented his force in track and field competitions, specializing in the 110m hurdle. It’s something on which Gerrard has previously spoken, including on BBC radio, faring extremely well in competitions in Surrey and Crystal Palace, according to public records. He then became a full constable in 1974, remaining on the force until 1984.

By most accounts, it was a tough gig.

“Patrolling the streets of South London in the 80s. Riots, shootings. That will have been a tough time,” said a person with knowledge of Gerrard. “The things you’ll have seen. I’m not so sure I know any lawyer exposed to the level of reality that Gerrard was. So you’d get a thick skin and maybe become impervious to the little things.”

After a year as a teacher, then gaining an LLB from Manchester Polytechnic, Gerrard switched sides, making the leap from law enforcer, to defender of the accused. He transitioned to law in 1989 and qualified as a corporate crime lawyer at Pannone in 1991 in Manchester, where he quickly developed a reputation as a “seriously hard worker”.

“He didn’t mind doing the grunt work,” one person who knew him at the time said. “He would work late, and he wanted to see results. More often than not, he got them.” He was elevated to partner at Pannone just two years later in 1993.

His client base expanded quickly to become a veritable who’s who of famed 1990s white-collar infamy.

The ENRC judgment lists his client base at the time as including Ernest Saunders—one of the “Guinness Four” who were convicted of artificially inflating Guinness’s share price so it could buy rival drinks company Distillers—and Asil Nadir, a convicted businessman whose crimes were preliminary to the creation of the U.K. governance code. However, a person with knowledge of the matter said that Gerrard’s involvement in these early cases was “limited” and that he “certainly didn’t attract those clients,” adding that firm leader Rodger Pannone did.

Nevertheless, “he was a brilliant lawyer,” a person who knew him in the 90s said. “He had balls of steel and knew what he wanted. He could talk the hind legs off a donkey. In another life he’d be a salesman, and a bloody good one.”

Another person said he was “an amusing sort of guy” and “quite entertaining” with a “keen sense of humor”, who “didn’t come across as arrogant”. And though he was “clearly a driven man”, there was “nothing sinister” going on; it was simply by a “highly ambitious” nature that he ascended in City law.

His reputation burgeoning, in 1995 Gerrard was headhunted by what is now DLA Piper—or Dibb Lupton Broomhead as it was then known—becoming an equity partner soon after. At DLA, he established the firm’s regulatory and white-collar crime department, in 1998 became head of white-collar crime Europe, and in the mid-noughties rose to global co-head of litigation and regulatory, according to several people and web-based resources.

“He wanted to be top, that was the feeling you got, be it hurdling, sailing or law or whatever,” said a former DLA colleague. At a time when criminal expertise was becoming increasingly sought after in the corporate world, Gerrard helped “build and strengthen” the litigation and regulatory department into one of DLA’s biggest and most “globally influential” departments.

Gerrard’s esteem grew exponentially, fuelled by what one former colleague called “god-level ambition”.

He was “the most sought after investigations lawyer in Britain”, the person said. But he is a lawyer that seems to be “a magnet for controversy”. Even his big money move to Dechert in 2011 was fraught with animosity.

Following a meeting with Dechert partners in 2009, and having told his recruitment agent that “a minimum of £20 million or possibly up to £30 million in fees would leave with him if he left DLA”, according to the ENRC judgment, Gerrard set in motion the wheels that would see his move to Dechert.

Of course, DLA was not happy. It initiated arbitration proceedings against Gerrard in May 2011, asserting that Gerrard had, allegedly, violated DLA’s “non-compete policy” by “failing to serve a period of gardening leave”, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

DLA declined to comment on this point.

“But this was just an example of [him] wanting and getting something that most others would’ve seen as out of reach,” a former colleague said. “He made the move, and got paid.” Even as far back as 2011, Gerrard could expect to pocket a salary of at least £1.75 million, the judgment reads, with one senior Dechert partner allegedly telling him the figure “could easily reach £2 million”.

Marshaling such mega-bucks SFO cases as the Airbus DPA, many believe that this figure only snowballed over the years.

Starting in 2016, Gerrard led the Dechert team advising Airbus on the joint SFO-France investigation into allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption. The investigation concluded in February 2020 with a €3.6 billion settlement paid by Airbus to the U.K., France and U.S. regulators. One of the biggest settlements ever seen, and a huge result for Dechert.

According to three people close to the matter, following the outcome, Gerrard cemented his status as among the firm’s highest earners, in his final year at the firm taking home the “highest bonus”, which added an extra $3 million to his “$4 million to $5 million salary”.

Dechert said it “does not comment on the remuneration of any partner, past or present”.

Steeped in Controversy

With Gerrard promising so much early on, several people said Gerrard was “under pressure” to build his practice. “And let’s just say he was creative in how he did it,” one person said. Indeed, especially in the latter part of his career, Gerrard was rarely far from controversy.

As recently as 2019, a year before his retirement, he was accused of “using threats” and “unlawful methods” to “force” an individual to give evidence; and was accused by American-Iranian aviation tycoon Farhad Azima of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) of hacking emails. Claims that Gerrard has previously denied.

The Azima saga is ongoing, with the tycoon last week securing a subpoena in U.S. federal court against a New York attorney to help pursue his claims.

But no controversy better illustrates Gerrard’s tendencies than his handling of the ENRC case, which centres on an instruction he picked up while still a partner at DLA in 2010. Mining giant ENRC instructed Gerrard to conduct an internal investigation into its subsidiary operations in Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the parent company suspecting bribery, corruption and fraud might be occurring.

But what might have been what one ex-Dechert partner called a “straight mandate” mushroomed into “a calamity of lies and dishonesty”.

The judgment handed down by London’s High Court earlier in May gives readers a glimpse into the sheer depth, scale and technicality of Gerrard’s tactics. In brief, London’s High Court found that Gerrard had: on three occasions leaked ENRC’s privileged and confidential information to the press; drawn the interest of the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) by tipping them off about one of the leaks; gone against his client’s interests by having unauthorized contact with the SFO; given “wrong advice” about ENRC’s potential criminal liability and the likelihood of a raid by the SFO, thus “expanding the investigation so as to earn more fees”; and had failed to protect ENRC’s privilege.

Though in his judgment Mr. Justice Waksman said he’d expect that finding “nothing untoward” going on at a client company “would be a good result”, this situation was different. On discovering possible infractions, Gerrard was, apparently, excited.

In an email exchange referred to in court—between Gerrard and Dechert’s deputy chair, Steven Feirson—Gerrard said: “We have found great incriminating evidence – so good,” later adding: “It’s been utterly unbelievable. Could be a great case if it goes the way it should.”

In this way, Justice Waksman said, “the more work would be generated for Mr. Gerrard and Dechert, among others”.

The ENRC case is an ongoing matter and is expected to roll on for at least another 18 months, according to two people close to the matter. In the latest development, which took place in a virtual hearing on Wednesday in London’s High Court, Dechert agreed to pay interim costs to ENRC of £20 million by September.

But that figure is likely to climb much higher, with Justice Waksman on Wednesday indicating that the parties, as they’ve agreed, are jointly and severally liable for the costs—meaning both or either of them can be pursued for payment—and that an indemnity costs order can be made, meaning an even higher sum may be payable than is standard, given the nature of the case.

On this latest development, Dechert, in its latest divergence from a partner it once unswervingly stood by, said in a statement: We recognize the seriousness of the judge’s findings in relation to our former Partner, Neil Gerrard’s conduct. Trust among partners is integral to any partnership, and up to and including the trial, Dechert acted in good faith in reliance on the assurances given to us by Mr Gerrard.”

The firm also stressed that its “insurers stand behind the firm”.

Gerrard, via his lawyers, declined to comment on the interim-costs ruling.

‘Neil’s Room’

Mr. Justice Waksman, in the liability judgment, described Gerrard as a man “so obsessed with making money from his work that he lost any real sense of objectivity, proportion or indeed loyalty to his client,” adding that he had little doubt that “Mr. Gerrard had a large ego and a belief that he is always right”.

By many accounts, it was an ego nurtured by his firm.

Despite all the controversy encircling Gerrard, Dechert stood by its man. There is a picture emerging of senior partners giving Gerrard the space and financial reward he asked for so that he could continue his work in his own manner, according to several people. He was, after all, the firm’s biggest biller, three people said.

As the ENRC case was ongoing, James Croock (the firm’s now-retired former general counsel) helped establish a “party line”, according to which ENRC was very much in the wrong and Dechert and Gerrard were right, two former insiders said. Partners “received emails” indicating that Dechert “had a strong case”, and that “ENRC had a weak case”, one of the people added.

Croock did not respond to a request for comment. Dechert said it does not comment on internal communications.

Gripped by Gerrard’s moneymaking powers, the firm’s London office became “a shrine to Neil”, according to other former insiders. Gerrard had the “top three billings” most months and was “constantly applauded” for it.

Another person said that Gerrard “relished being seen as that important person within the office”, suggesting that “he had more power than [the London] management.”

However, Dechert disputed these points, suggesting this was an “incorrect” characterization.

There were even ‘do not enter’ rooms dedicated to Gerrard’s team and his work, the people said.

Dechert responded to this point, saying: “It is standard practice for firms to take appropriate security measures and  for secure rooms to be dedicated to specific client mandates and for access to be limited to those working on that particular mandate. No unusual arrangements were made in relation to Mr. Gerrard’s work.”

Merited? Or Self-Promotion?

But this reputation was often fueled by Gerrard himself, many now say.

“He’s known on the market as one of the best, if not the best,” a former insider said. “His reputation [at both DLA and Dechert] was immense. But, this was a guy who liked to talk himself up. His rep was deserved, but in part self-generated. If you heard whispers about Neil in the corridors, they were probably started by Neil.”

Indeed, in the ENRC judgment, Mr. Justice Waksman said that to suggest “he was probably prone to exaggeration” was “an understatement”.

For years, Gerrard had a reputation on the white-collar market as being “as known in the SFO as he is in his own firm”, one white-collar partner said. It is “well known” that Gerrard was “at one time odds on” to take over from then-director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, but turned it down because, one person said, “there was not enough money in it”. International reported the apparent revelation in 2011.

However, Mr. Justice Waksman said Gerrard “told a number of people” that he had been approached for the job, but concluded “there was in fact no evidence that Mr. Gerrard had ever been approached for this job and indeed in evidence he did not suggest there had been”.

But Gerrard admitted in his evidence that “he said that actually he did not know if he had ever been shortlisted.”

Waksman added: “At best, this was a considerable exaggeration of the reputation which he claimed he had at the SFO; at worst it is simply untrue. Either way, it was a misleading statement by a professional to potential clients.”

Whatever the truth, it was a line Dechert pounced upon, including on its website “at least up to February 2016” that “Mr. Gerrard has in the past been shortlisted to be Director of the SFO”, Mr. Justice Waksman said.

‘A Tragedy’

And yet, despite the controversy and suggestion he was prone to exaggeration and dishonesty, several current and former colleagues speak highly of Gerrard and express sympathy for him and his damaged reputation.

One of the people said: “Neil treated me very well. He helped build my career. I never saw evidence of things that have been said about him in court. He had a strong personality. So maybe he was quite marmite to some. Some people clashed with him. But that was the nature of the man. I see what’s happening to him now as a tragedy.”

Another former colleague said that there were “aspects of [Gerrard’s] leadership that were excellent”.

And in 2017, ex-Dechert partner Miriam Gonzalez said of Gerrard: “For as long as I have known him he has encouraged me to go as far as I can with my career – he always sees the opportunities rather than the obstacles, which is a great asset in life.”

The current hearing into interim costs is ongoing, and on Thursday will address issues including ENRC’s costs against the SFO.