We are less than two weeks into a new year, and we have already had reports of young lawyers getting into major difficulties. Both are reported in Legal Futures . The first follows a familiar pattern. The solicitor in question had failed to obtain adequate After the Event Insurance. This meant that, when a matter was discontinued, the client or the firm would have been responsible for the other side’s costs. She tried to cover up the error by created forged insurance schedules in the hope that the insurers would not ask any questions. She then fabricated attendance notes to try and support the cover up.
It is no great surprise then that she has been struck off the roll for dishonesty.
This is becoming alarmingly repetitive. Yet again, a career is brought to a tragic end because concealment seems preferable to honesty. I am beginning to sound like a broken record but the message for solicitors is clear – not only is honesty the better option, it is the only option. The discomfort of a confession is far less painful than the end of your career.
But the sheer number of such cases does raise an equally disturbing issue. Why are these lawyers so afraid to admit a mistake? Is there such a culture of fear across the legal profession?
This is partly demonstrated in the second report.
Another young lawyer was found to have lied to a client and her employer about the progress of a matter. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found that one cause of her conduct was her firm’s attitude towards billing targets. She was a clinical negligence lawyer who acted for victims. Those cases can be complex, drawn out and heavily dependent on expert evidence. The solicitor was under heavy pressure from the firm to meet a billing target. She had received a letter from the firm requiring her to record 137 hours in 19 days to make a supposed deficit. The letter went on –
“Please therefore by return of email let me know your plans on how you are going to resolve that deficit before the deadline. I am assuming that you will be working each and every weekend and long hours during the week to ensure that the required target is reached.’
The lawyer in question was suffering from mental health issues. She later misled her employers, a client and backdated letters. The tribunal criticised the firm for placing her undue pressure. Her health issues made her more vulnerable to a negative reaction to the letter. The firm should have been alerted to the warning signs of her illness. The firm carried a significant portion of the blame and had not supported its employee. She was suspended for two years – but such suspension was itself suspended for three years.
Anyone who has managed a law firm is aware of the need to ensure that cases are turned over quickly and efficiently. Managers are likely to be under similar pressures – from partners, banks, creditors… There are many ways in which this can be addressed. Supervision and support are crucial. If a solicitor is falling behind a target there might be any number of reasons – too many cases, an unrealistic target, illness (as in this case), lack of support. There can never be any excuse for managers to bully their lawyers in order to improve performance. Members of a team need to know that there is someone that they can speak to if they are struggling. That someone is not there to judge but to guide and support.
Many of these cases that we are seeing involve a young lawyers desperately trying, and failing, to sort out a crisis on their own. Why are they working in such isolation in the first place?
I think that the agenda is shifting here. I used to emphasise the importance of lawyers not being afraid to speak up if there is an issue. The message is now well and truly one for managers. Can my lawyers speak to me without being ‘terrified’ of the reaction? What support do I offer?
Aggressive treatment of staff is always counterproductive.
We are likely to see more cases where firms find themselves under scrutiny. Most firms do care for their staff. Clearly others do not. And this has to change.
Steve Cornforth is a solicitor who owns the Steve Cornforth Consultancy providing Management Support, Compliance Advice and Training for Lawyers and Law Firms.