The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal pitties on a young lawyer in a professional negligence case, due to the “toxic” work environment and the “culture of fear” fostered by the firm where she was working

The decision of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal

In case number 11657/2017, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) suspended a young lawyer from practicing for two years since 28th November 2017. This sanction was suspended for three years since the same date if specific conditions listed in the paragraph 69.2 of the decision were met.

As said in the title of this publication, the SDT “pitied” on the young lawyer by applying mitigating circumstances, due to the context in which the infractions of both the Solicitors Regulation Authority (or SRA) Principles 2011 and the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 occurred. Among the breaches alleged by the SRA, the worst one was the backdating of communications with clients and counterparties.

During the sanction procedure, Ms. D.A., the Firm’s Director of Regulation, People, and Standards (in charge of, among other things, preserving and fostering well-being among the Firm’s employees) testified that she was not aware of the lawyer’s loss of hair and weight. Neither was she aware of the several occasions in which the lawyer cried at the office. All of this as a consequence of the anxiety that billable hours objectives were causing on her. Such stress was generated as a consequence of two e-mails that Ms. D.A. -already mentioned- and Mr. C.S. -managing partner of the Firm- sent her, informing her that she did not fulfill her billable hours’ targets in 2012 and 2013. This e-mails can be read in paragraph 13 of the decision.

Notwithstanding ruling that the young lawyer’s conducts were “dishonest” (paragraph 51 of the decision), the SDT also considered that in the case at hand certain mitigating circumstances concurred, as far as:

  1. The e-mail sent by Mr. C.S. was “threatening and harassing in tone,” to “frighten the recipient into compliance, namely into working long hours in the evenings, at weekends, at holiday times, in short doing whatever was necessary to make up time recording deficits and therefore increase billing.” This e-mail is considered by the SDT as “inappropriate” and that “lacked finesse and empathy.” (paragraph 60).
  2. The cause of the unprofessional conduct of the young lawyer, as well as her dishonesty, was “the combination of the culture of the Firm in terms of pressures placed on junior solicitors and her mental ill-health arising from the pressures of work allied with difficult personal circumstances.” The above caused that the lawyer’s “viewed as an environment [her work environment] that had become toxic to her,” which was a “perfect storm of circumstances.” (paragraph 61).

To sum up, the SDT ruled that the “toxic” environment and the “culture of fear” of the Firm, the pressure to fulfill the billable hours’ targets imposed on the youngest solicitors, pushed the respondent to conceal her own mistakes, not to acknowledge them.

LawCare, the MHILP’s homologous in the United Kingdom, a model to follow

Elizabeth Rimmer, LawCare’s CEO

Today, LawCare’s CEO, Elizabeth Rimmer, has been interviewed by Nick Hilborne (from Legal Futures) about the increase of calls made to LawCare’s helpline. The full interview can be read by clicking the following link: https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/lawyers-showing-greater-awareness-mental-health-helpline-calls-rise.

In this interview, Elizabeth Rimmer says that in 2017, LawCare’s helpline has received 616 phone calls, an 11% more than the year before and is conceived as a “greater awareness about mental health” among lawyers. Even though she understands that it is necessary to keep working because “often people contact us when they reach crisis point – we would like to see them avoid that,” affirms.

Recently, LawCare has called for consciousness to all legal professionals in the light of the case referred in this publication and considers the decision of the SDT as “courageous,” by taking a “holistic view” of the situation, rather than putting all the blame on the respondent, a young lawyer.

The leading cause of calls made to the helpline, the workplace stress:

Elizabeth Rimmer affirms that most of the calls (the 27%) are due to workplace stress, followed by the depression (17%), disciplinary concerns (8%), anxiety (7%), bereavement (7%), financial problems (4%), bullying and harassment (4%). The other 26% are other causes, such as chronic illnesses, alcohol and drugs issues, career development and relationship issues.

The most common source of concern among lawyers, client demands:

Also, the most common cause of concern among lawyers are client demands (36%), followed by the revenue generation and billable hours’ targets (26.5%), the need to sacrifice work-life balance in pursuit of promotion (13%), partners preventing them from considering well-being (12%) and the lack of role models (10%). The remaining 2.5% are other causes.

Other relevant details:

The 76% of the calls received at LawCare’s helpline come from solicitors, the 45% of which have been admitted to practice for less than five years or are trainees.

Also, a recent survey made by LawCare shows up that the majority of lawyers affirm that partners shall show a higher consciousness for inclusivity and well-being by a “change of behaviour.” Others consider that partners shall give their staff “more interaction and feedback” and “provide mentoring,” more than concern about revenue and billable hours’ targets.

This survey is also useful because proved that when young solicitors were asked about the concern among colleagues about well-being and fair treatment, the numbers fall in a 10% when it was clarified that by colleagues they were referring to partners.

Due to these results, LawCare recommends firm managers to “better communicate their inclusion and wellbeing policies” and “consider alternate resourcing models to satisfy client demand, and to open dialogue with their clients on issues as inclusion and wellbeing.”

The commitment of the MHILP to the legal profession

The MHILP is fully committed to mental health among legal professionals and Legal Sciences students. For this reason, we publically announce that, in March, the Council of Government of the MHILP will meet in London with LawCare’s CEO, Elizabeth Rimmer, who we publically thank for her availability and kindness on showing us how LawCare functions and the advances that they are doing on fostering English lawyers’ well-being. LawCare is, without any trace of doubt, a model for the MHILP and an institution with which we wish to collaborate.

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