A senior partner at top law firm Arthur Cox has said she believes sacked solicitor Ammi Burke has a "victim mentality" and "no understanding of how to behave in an office environment" after Ms Burke accosted her in her office over an invitation to lunch just two weeks into her first placement after qualifying.
"Ammi's legal skills are not in question… but there's so much more needed to be a success in a law firm," the partner told the Workplace Relations Commission on Thursday.
Ms Burke, of Castlebar Co Mayo, who denies the partner's account of their meeting, has lodged a complaint under Section 8 of the Unfair Dismissals Act against Arthur Cox Solicitors, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin 2 alleging she was unfairly dismissed by the firm on November 12th, 2019.
Opening her claim on Thursday, Ms Burke said she had an “exemplary and unblemished” employment record over three and a half years as a trainee and newly-qualified associate with Arthur Cox up to that point.
“It was a shock dismissal,” she said, arguing she had received positive appraisals before and had never been spoken to about her conduct by a partner in either HR or the finance department where she worked.
“Following dismissal I was subjected to commentary and rumour online,” she said, before an article was published on a UK legal news website about what had happened.
She said the commission would hear evidence that the author of the story had been in contact with Arthur Cox in advance of its publication and that the firm “made no effort to prevent the publication of that article”.
Ms Burke said reputational damage was a major element of her claim, and argued that reinstatement was the only way to restore her reputation among the “tight-knit” Irish legal industry.
“Unfortunately, what occurred was that Ms Burke’s relationships with three of six senior partners in the banking department broke down as a result of interactions with the partners – such as to render a contracted employment relationship unsustainable and untenable,” said Peter Ward SC, defending the case for Arthur Cox.
“The firm lost trust and confidence in the complainant as an employee and solicitor because of the nature and content of those communications,” he said.
He said as a result she was terminated in line with her contract and that the firm had “furnished” her with three months’ pay, €17,500, plus an ex-gratia payment of €70,000 – which he said Ms Burke “accepted and retained to this day”.
He said the firm was opposed to reinstatement being considered as a potential remedy in the event Ms Burke succeeded in her complaint.
Ultan Shannon, partner in Arthur Cox's banking and finance group, said Ms Burke had done a trainee rotation in the department before being placed there as a newly-qualified solicitor in January 2019 – which he agreed to after being informed of some "reluctance" to accept her in another practice group.
“I had worked with Ammi, we needed NQs [newly-qualified solicitors]… I don’t want anyone to think otherwise, we wanted Ammi because she was good,” he said.
He said the senior partner in the banking and finance group, Gráinne Hennessy, was coming back from a sabbatical in January 2019 and had a prior arrangement with two of the new solicitors on the team to have lunch with them on her return – having worked with them before.
Ms Hennessy told him Ms Burke had come into her office to “have a go at her” over the lunch invite, telling her she felt “excluded” and had been “treated differently” to the other new solicitors and that it suggested her work was not held in the same regard as theirs.
He said Gráinne Hennessy was “in shock” over the interaction.
“I left the room in shock too,” he said. “Ammi has only started here and has been making an issue with one of the most senior partners in the firm,” he said. “It was a bit like a kick that this had happened. Gráinne Hennessy would be looking at me and asking: ‘Is this the person that you had advocated for to come into our group?’.”
He said he thought the lunch invite was “innocent” and a “polite gesture” and Ms Burke had demonstrated “a lack of awareness” and suggested in the circumstances, even if there had been some offence, the “normal” response would have been to “say nothing”.
Ms Hennessy told the commission in evidence today that Ms Burke came in and stood over her at her desk in January “very aggressively” and said she found it “intimidating”.
Ms Burke told her she was “disgusted” and “offended” by her email, she said.
Ms Hennessy said she thought she must have sent the wrong email around with the lunch invitation.
“I said I was really sorry for how I might have phrased it… I must have apologised at least eight times,” she said and said she still couldn’t see how Ms Burke had taken offence from the email.
Her assessment after the incident was that Ms Burke “is someone who has a victim mentality – someone who takes offence at any interaction,” she said. “No judgment, no understanding of how to behave in an office environment. If she’s like this with me, what is she like with trainees or associates?” she added.
Ms Burke said she would “refute” Ms Hennessy’s account of their interaction in her own evidence.
She put it to her that the assessment of her people skills was at variance with her performance reviews up to July 2019, when managers had scored her well on “teamwork” and had not discussed her interaction with Ms Hennessy until she raised it at their prompting, she argued.
Ms Hennessy argued the forms Ms Burke referred to were “one size fits all” and that expectations would differ significantly on the basis of experience.
“The whole thing saddens me,” Ms Hennessy said. “Ammi’s legal skills are not in question - she’s a bright girl, her drafting is good, but there’s so much more needed to be a success in a law firm,” she said.
In November 2019, Mr Shannon told the Commission the associate who shared an office with Ms Burke, Sinéad Cantillon, “broke down completely in front of me” saying she had asked four times already to be moved and “couldn’t take it any more”.
He agreed to move her and the following day Ms Burke came and asked what had happened.
He said he had spoken to Ms Cantillon and asked Ms Burke for her side of the story but that “the shutters came down” and Ms Burke refused to give details.
He said on November 11th, Ms Burke came to his office again and told him she “felt like a pariah” in the office by herself. She said several times: “I’m taking this very seriously,” he said.
“I said to Ammi: ‘If there’s any doubt, we’re taking this very seriously,’ ” he said – and following that a decision was made to terminate her employment.
Thursday's hearing was presided over by Kevin Baneham, who rejected an application last week by Ms Burke that he recuse himself after she alleged he was a "friend" and Labour Party "comrade" of Arthur Cox's senior counsel, Mr Ward.
Mr Baneham delivered his ruling on the preliminary matter in correspondence to the parties.
The case is set to continue with defence evidence on Friday.