Why does this keep happening?
We read today about yet another fee earner whose career in in tatters because they have tried to cover up mistakes –
In this case there were three cases where deadlines had been missed by a few days. Rather than admit the mistake the non-qualified case handler dishonestly back dated documents to mislead the court and the other side. In each of these cases the problem was probably capable of resolution with a bit of experienced help. If he had admitted the first error the others might well have been avoided.
Last year a young solicitor was struck off after backdating 23 letters and misleading a client about the progress of a claim –
And then there was the experienced solicitor wo actually gave a false letter to an SRA investigator –
One common factor is that the attempts to cover up have been discovered without great difficulty. They have usually been followed by an eventual admission of wrongdoing.
I cannot accept that we have suddenly become a profession of the dishonest. The lawyers in these cases are not cynical fraudsters. They are almost always acting at a time of stress and panic. They are almost always acting alone as a situation rolls out of control. This does not justify dishonesty. But it does raise a serious question for all managers of law firms. Why do lawyers think it is better to risk their career than admit a mistake? What is the ethos in firms that creates such a sense of fear? What support are we giving to our staff? Are we reminding staff that it is not usually the end of the world if we miss a deadline? But it might be the end of a career if they try to lie their way out of it?
In March 2018 I set out my 5 point plan to help lawyers to sleep at night –
1. In the famous words of Michael Jackson - You are not alone. Find someone that you can talk to – it is so easy to be isolated in your little cell. Surrounded by files, emails, deadlines, telephone messages, meetings. To get into that mindset that says ‘I have no time to speak to anyone’. You have. And if you haven’t then make it. 20 mins speaking to someone will get you hours of payback in avoiding sleepless nights. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a problem is never anywhere near as bad when you talk to someone about it. Especially someone who has been there, which if we are honest is all of us! Speak to someone. Right away. Turn your computer off and go and do it now.
2. Be generous in giving files away. That file that you are scared to look at. The one that has been festering by the side of your desk so long that even the spiders won’t go near it. Give it to someone. It won’t go away on its own. If you can’t look at it, find someone who can. Many solicitors have a file swapping arrangement. I’ll give you mine; you give me yours. Don’t hog matters to protect your bills. You can be far more productive by liberating yourself. Don’t be scared of being criticised. You won’t be. You are more likely to be told – ‘Leave it with me and while you’re there can you look at this one of mine.’
3. See the wood for the trees. It is never as bad as you think it is at 3.00am. The world will not end. I’ve been a lawyer since 1st April 1980. I have had more 3.00am moments than I like to admit – especially in the early days. Guess what? I’m still here. I’m still alive. I have got to an age where I can say. ‘Phew oblivion never happened.’ It was never going to and never will.
4. If you need to – confess. If you think the worst has happened – you've missed a deadline and can’t think of a way out. Then tell someone. Today’s is just the next in line of those nightmare cases where lawyers have tried to cover up and been struck off because they were scared to own up. No one was ever struck off for admitting a mistake. Partners, supervisors, insurers will never bite your head off for coming clean. And if they do they shouldn’t be in the job. It also means that it is no longer just your problem. Get it out there and do it as soon as possible. The consequences are less scary than you think and much less stressful than waking up at night or even jeopardising your hard earned career.
Get a life. Don’t get sucked into that bubble where your legal world becomes all consuming. Being a lawyer is what you do. It is not who you are. See your work as part of your life but not everything. Develop interests and friends outside the pressure cooker. I support Everton. That can very stressful and cause sleepless nights. But it is something different. I love music and photography. I also waste far too much time on social media!