For the client, it’s their life
“They last a long time and can ruin the career, health and family life of those involved. Therefore it is not until criminal law expertise melds with personal experience and dedication that we as lawyers constitute a crucial difference.
“A person does not get good at understanding white-collar crime without mastering the entire legal field,” says Bjørn Stordrange.
“If you only have a command of criminal law when you are going to litigate white-collar crime, the defence will not extend far enough and will be incomplete.”
The leader for thewhite-collar crime group at SANDS is sitting in a conference room at the top of the new head office for the firm he has given his name to. The statement about the protection of the law could have been aimed at lawyers in general, but is just as much a barb directed at Økokrim (The Norwegian National Authority for Investigation and Prosecution of Economic and Environmental Crime), the prosecuting authority that for nearly three decades has investigated and litigated white-collar crime in Norway. In other words, much the same time as Bjørn Stordrange has been seated at the opposing party’s table.
The long experience with clients in several of Norway’s biggest and widest-spanning white-collar crime cases has given Stordrange a unique perspective on what works – and what doesn’t work – in this complex area of the law. The lawyer has distinguished himself as a spokesman for the idea that Økokrim should be reorganised. He believes that Økokrim’s biggest problem is the absence of a distinction between the investigative function and the role of prosecutor:
“The public prosecutor who leads the investigation is also the person who in the end will decide whether or not an indictment will be brought. Confirmation biases may thus arise. Cases that should have been halted are not. Therefore, there should be an organisational and functional distinction between investigation and prosecution – as is the case for other Norwegian prosecuting authorities,” opines Stordrange.
Another problem is that supervisory authorities such as the Financial Supervisory Authority of Norway, the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration and the tax assessment administration have an active role in the investigation of white-collar crime cases, while at the same time in reality they represent victim interests in criminal cases:
“Things have developed in such a way that major tax cases are prepared in parallel at the administrative agency and at Økokrim. For those involved, the mixing of roles is a strong concern with respect to due process. This was clearly evident in the critical report that was prepared after the Transocean case and which is now out for consultation,” says Stordrange.
“It is important that Økokrim conducts itself correctly and has credibility. The problem with Økokrim is that at times they are activists and want to make examples by going after high-profile people. The result is that individuals become guinea pigs for their law and case handling.”
From Syse to the court. The importance of having lawyers who understand the field’s practice is vital. SANDS has seven partners who are specialists in white-collar crime and is thus a leading practice in this area in Norway. Bjørn Stordrange himself began his further education with the Norwegian Armed Forces’ legendary course in Russian, before he switched to studying law. He was a Member of the Storting for the Conservative Party of Norway and wrote a doctoral dissertation on constitutional law while at university. Subsequently he has published books on expropriation law, contract law and criminal law. After having been a Chief District Court Judge in Southern Norway for four years until 1992, interrupted by well over a year as State Secretary for the Justice Minister in the Syse Government, he worked at Grette up until 1999. He had been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Norway, was established as a lawyer and felt the desire to be his own master.
“So it turned out that I was with Morten Steenstrup during a negotiation in Brussels. We knew each other well and ate dinner together and talked until long into the night about joining forces,” Stordrange recalls.
SANDS has grown to be a leader in litigation in Norway, with white-collar crime as a very visible component through several of the country’s biggest white-collar crime cases. An example is the Acta case, the largest economic crime case in Norwegian history, in addition to a number of high-profile corruption cases and internal affairs. Stordrange has also conducted cases such as the Siemens case regarding corruption by high-ranking military officers. The ongoing Funcom case involves insider trading.
Wait. Wait. Attack. SANDS’ entry into white-collar crime cases such as this usually comes when someone is arrested, a search is conducted and the case is set in motion.
“There are always at least two of us who work on the case from the first day, follow it closely, participate in interviews, advise the client on how a person should act from the first moment. We help in finding relevant evidence and analyse the law in the case quite early,” says Stordrange.
The lawyers keep themselves in abeyance for the most part while Økokrim builds the case in the investigation phase, which can drag on.
“But when the indictment is issued, the roles switch. That is when we are on the offensive and want to find the arguments for acquittal,” the lawyer says. He thinks an white-collar crime case raises three different types of issues:
“At the foundation is the process and the fundamental knowledge of the rules. Then comes the sharper knowledge about criminal law and what is required to convict. Then comes the distinctive part that relates to a special area of the law,” says Stordrange.
This means that if the case involves tax law, environmental criminality or employment law, then you must have experts on it to achieve the best imaginable result.
“There are always pretrial legal issues related to economic crime cases. SANDS differs from many others thanks to our professional breadth in many fields.”
Client in the spotlight. On the other hand, what cannot be learned from the textbooks is what Stordrange calls “a certain diplomatic and practical sense” regarding how to have a command of cases.
“Part of our long experience is the ability to advise the client about at which stages he – or occasionally she – must be more intense, and when the case can be laid a little to one side. A person cannot, of course, think 100 per cent about the case for five years,” Stordrange points out.
There are several aspects of such cases that do not have anything at all to do with the law. For example, many people consider the media crisis and the public denunciation as the most difficult aspect of all.
“Crisis-wise, the case begins when it explodes and the media are on it,” says Stordrange.
“Afterwards it diminishes, before a new peak comes when the case begins in court and the spotlights are there again. Many say that the conviction itself and serving any sentence are not very burdensome compared to the public humiliation,” reports Stordrange.
Compared to other law firms, SANDS prefers to be a little informal and non-bureaucratic, with a great deal of direct client contact.
“We go into these cases wholeheartedly and often manage to become well acquainted with our clients because that is what the cases require. It can be challenging to be involved. But for us, this is after all a job,” says Bjørn Stordrange.
“For the client, it’s their life.”