It’s a thin line between valuable and invaluable

THE LINE BETWEEN loving and hating a client must be a thin one at times. We learned that yesterday from the testimony of Mary-Ellen Field, a former expert on intellectual property for Chiltern – the tax advisers acquired by BDO in 2007.

She was at the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics giving evidence about suspected phone hacking and her run-in with former supermodel Elle Macpherson.

Field was advising Macpherson in 2005 when the model became suspicious about information leaked to the press. Field claims the model believed she had been the leak, concluded it was because Field was an alcoholic and insisted she check into rehab if she wanted to keep her job.
Denying she was the leak or that she suffered from alcoholism, Field eventually acquiesced in the face of Macpherson’s demands and attended a clinic for a few days at the back end of 2005.

Field, admitted she was an “idiot” for doing it and that she submitted to treatment even in the face of advice from lawyers that she should resign and sue for constructive dismissal. The clinic concluded she was not an alcoholic – though she may have been suffering from stress. She was eventually made redundant at the beginning of 2006. It was later that year Field became suspicious Macpherson’s voicemail may have been hacked.

These events are gripping on so many levels. As the Guardian pointed out this morning the Chiltern episode forms a satire on the cult of celebrity that’s almost impossible to make up.
But it also has something to say about the relationship between advisor and client.
Field and her employers clearly feared losing the supermodel as a client. Indeed, the head of Chiltern was enamoured of Macpherson and had allowed her to set up office in the firm’s building.

And yet in forcing Field to go through rehab when there was precious little to prove she was either the leak or an alcoholic speaks of a relationship that had become so radically misshapen that Field’s employers had lost their grip on what was reasonable to tolerate from the client and what was fair to expect from its key employee.

High profile clients like Macpherson are flattering and, in this case, seductive. Advisers can quickly develop the idea that having them on their books and servicing their every whim is of far more value to the firm than it really is. Field suggested in testimony that billings to Macpherson were insignificant and that big corporate clients were, in money terms, much more valuable. And yet the firm seems to have been blinded to what we might assume were empirical facts. So blinded indeed they did not see the damage it would do to one of their own highly valuable members of staff.

Firms who pay such little regard to their own star players do so at their own peril. Reputation is on the line here and reputation is critical not just with clients but with the highly skilled staff a firm needs to keep succeeding. If the big guns don’t want to work with you, you’re dead in the water. And for what? The vanity of boasting that you have a celebrity client? There is a moral case for protecting employees from such abuse, there is also a business case. It beggars belief that anyone would not see it.

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