“When I came to MBM, we didn’t specialise in financial disputes. We were happy to take some on, but it wasn’t an area we were focusing on. It’s mushroomed over the last four years.”
In recent weeks, things have become more dramatic. At the end of June, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) reached a settlement with Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland to review past sales of interest rate hedges and compensate those who had been mis-sold.
That news came just days after the City watchdog slapped a record £59.5 million fine on Barclays for manipulating Libor, a key inter-bank lending rate used to determine the price of everything from credit card fees to commercial loans.
“We’ve got to the stage where nothing very much surprises us,” MacLean admits.
In the early days of the credit crunch, most of the cases dealt with at MBM centred on clients whose banks had reneged on their promises to provide loans, but nowadays matters have become “more technical”.
“We’ve really had to delve into the minutiae of the FSA regulations and the conduct of business rules,” she explains.
Libor, once a term few outside the banking industry had heard of but now fast becoming a household name, is of particular interest given the Barclays fine – which totalled £290m when penalties from US authorities were added – and the possibility of other banks becoming caught up in the scandal.
“We were looking at Libor with some interest last year, because a lot of our clients’ lending was tied to it,” MacLean says.
She explains that some clients were concerned that they may not have been charged the correct amount, because Libor changes daily and it can be difficult to work out how that affects the cost of a loan over its term.
“We know there’s at least one case in England where claimants are arguing in relation to Barclays that, because of the fixing of Libor, there is a suggestion that the swap agreements that were imposed on them are void.”
With the FSA’s review of swap-selling extending its reach last week to include Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks, MacLean believes the public’s trust in banks is at an all-time low.
On a positive note, she believes the publicity is helping clients feel brave enough to tell their banks when they think they have been treated unfairly over interest rate hedges, whereas before they might have been wary about speaking up for fear of “retaliation”.
“Now it’s in the public domain, it makes it easier to say they think they should be assessed by the independent assessor.”
However, she says the process for assessing claims is still unclear, and the FSA is yet to announce whether an independent assessor will look at all claims. “We would certainly hope that’s the case,” she says, adding that it initially seemed that banks would act as “gatekeepers”, deciding which cases would go forward for review.
Nevertheless, many smaller firms are still daunted by the prospect of bringing legal action against banks and other institutions, so MBM Commercial launched a fund to help meet their costs.
The fund, called Restitution, is backed by two unnamed private investors and run as a separate venture from its main activities. MacLean says there has been a lot of interest in the initiative and, while it is still in its early days, the firm is looking at two potential claims.
Since she joined MBM, the firm’s dispute resolution team has doubled in size, and MacLean says it will probably have to expand further given its workload.
“We deal with all aspects of commercial dispute resolution, and have other files on our desks, but it’s fair to say that 80 to 90 per cent of the work we’re dealing with is financial disputes.”
While acknowledging that her line of work means she has to deal with clients who are having “so much wrong perpetrated on them by the banks”, MacLean says her job does offer a lot of satisfaction when the results go in their favour.
“I like to feel we’re doing the right thing and putting things right where we can,” she adds.
Despite having spent ten years as an advocate before joining MBM, MacLean says she began her career without knowing whether she really wanted to practice law, and has no regrets about her direction.
She decided to study law in Leicester “mostly because it’s twinned with Strasbourg”, which meant she was able to spend a year in the home of the European Parliament, “but I’d started working as a summer student in various firms up here and thought I’d love to be a lawyer in Scotland”.
So she ended up doing a two-year conversion degree in Edinburgh. “Not the most efficient and time-effective way to become a Scots lawyer,” she says.
However, having followed a slightly unconventional route, MacLean is adamant that her focus will remain on Scots law.
“It’s possible to have a better work-life balance in Scotland than if you’re working in the centre of London,” she adds. “I really like what I’m doing. I like the extent of client contact and developing relationships, which you just don’t do in the same way when you’re an advocate.”
Born: Edinburgh, April 1967.
Education: Joint honours degree in English and French law at Leicester University, then Scots law degree at Edinburgh University.
First job: Trainee solicitor
Ambition while at school: To be a primary school teacher.
Music: I have a sneaking fondness for 80s music and the Radio 1 chart show.
Can’t live without: My mother would say Diet Coke, and I suspect she is right, but other than that my iPhone.
Favourite place: Our family cottage at Ardfern on the west coast.
What makes you angry? Unfairness.
Best thing about your job? Feeling I can do something to combat the unfairness perpetrated on my clients.