First published in Scottish Legal News on 24 March 2020
It all could have been so different for MML Legal partner Ryan Russell, an employment specialist who has won countless high-profile cases on behalf of wronged employees.
During his studies at Dundee University, Mr Russell formed a band that enjoyed some early success, leading the budding lawyer to contemplate turning his back on the profession completely.
“Our band was called Page 6 and it did alright – we played festivals and toured and we had an album,” he recalls.
“When I left university I got a traineeship at Aberdein Considine doing conveyancing, but I hated conveyancing – I was still in the band and had my head in the clouds.
“I was at Aberdein Considine for three months and much to my parents’ disgust I packed it in. I went full-time with the band and we self-funded an album.”
But while his bandmate Marc Campbell went off to the US, where he has found fame with the New York-based indie band MisterWives, Mr Russell returned to the law before his diploma expired, throwing himself into making a difference for hundreds of people in his hometown of Dundee and beyond.
“When I started at the firm over 10 years ago [client relations partner] John Muir was doing employment law and was looking for an assistant to get involved,” he says.
“From the get-go I was thrown in at the deep end. It’s not a big firm so I didn’t have the luxury of being able to do things in a different way.
“My experience was getting involved and getting my hands dirty. It was nerve-racking at times but I got a lot of experience.”
The main attraction of working on employment cases was seeing the impact a positive outcome can have on people’s lives, with Mr Russell noting the toll that workplace disputes can take.
“You see how it affects their health, their family life and their quality of life,” he says.
Though he says there are positives to every case he handles – even those that aren’t ultimately successful – Mr Russell is especially pleased to have triumphed in several David and Goliath battles against HMRC:
“I have won several unfair dismissal and disability discrimination claims against HMRC in recent years. They are one of the largest employers in the UK with unrivalled resources. The cases were very complex and laid down a marker for the improved treatment of disabled employees. I think the fact these successful claims stopped a course of discriminatory behaviour against disabled employees is one of my biggest achievements because they changed things for the better. HMRC were forced to change their approach and processes when it came to most vulnerable people in the workplace. I know for a fact these cases have kept hundreds if not more disabled employees in jobs.”
Other memorable cases include his representation of pilot Gerard McIver in an unfair dismissal case against Perth College’s Air Service Training arm; another was when he acted for a Ghanaian who lost his job at sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger over his right-to-work status; and advising an employee of the Dundee-based Michelin tyre factory after he was fired while off sick with mental health issues.
Mr Russell says the Perth College case was satisfying because it led to an overhaul of internal procedures while the Pret case had been particularly important because it highlighted just how significant work relationships can be in people’s lives. The Michelin case, meanwhile, highlighted just how “horrendous” some working practices can be when it comes to recognising and dealing with staff’s mental health.
“My client, Stan Reid, had been through a triple tragedy – his best friend’s son had fallen off a cliff and died then at the vigil held for him two people were stabbed to death. Stan had lost three people in a week that he was close to,” Mr Russell says.
“He had spent most of the week on the beach trying to find the young lad then on the Sunday he went to Glasgow with his girlfriend to attend an event but when a photo of him at the event went online he was sacked.
“The case got a lot of attention with people asking what you should be doing when you’re signed off work because of your mental health. Should you be in bed?”
Mr Russell has an intuitive feel for a good story and has built strong relations with journalists – as many of Scotland’s most successful lawyers have. The publicity which has surrounded his high-profile cases means that Mr Russell is now regularly instructed on matters well beyond MML Legal’s home turf of Dundee, with cases currently running in tribunals in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness.
“We’re not bothered about being listed in legal directories, we’re just bothered about winning cases,” he says. “It’s totally results based and that gets us a lot of attention in the papers and on social media – 99 per cent of the time clients say they have come to us because they saw this case or that case.”
Ultimately, while employment law cases can give employers a bad name, Mr Russell says it is rarely businesses themselves that behave badly, but rather one of the other individuals they have employed.
“I’m always astonished at the point in time when humans deliberately start treating people terribly,” he says.
“Employers aren’t bad, it comes down to individuals making bad decisions. I see a lot of people consciously and deliberately making life difficult for other people.
“It’s very rare that you find an organisation that’s just rotten, but you do find individuals within organisations that make decisions or do things that they know aren’t right.”
Holding them to account is what Mr Russell thrives on and he pursues his practice with exactly the same vigour as he used when promoting Page 6 a decade ago.
“When I was in the band I was always really passionate about it and I managed it,” he says. “When that stopped I threw myself into my legal career with the same kind of passion.”