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A fairer kind of profession

Jean-Yves Gilg looks at how the culture of legal businesses is affecting, not only practise, but practitioners

1 March 2019

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Until recently it seemed most disciplinary cases involving solicitors with mental health issues involved lawyers who’d had long, unblemished careers until, later in their professional lives, stress and pressure built up to unmanageable levels, and something uncontrollably snapped.

I remember one case in particular, where a solicitor reaching retirement age suddenly took to online gambling following the deaths of close friends and difficulties at his firm.

He ended up “borrowing” £1.2m from client accounts to feed his addiction and said he had spiralled in “a kamikaze state of mind”. Like many who end up in front of the SDT, Noel Sedgley was in a small firm – he was a sole practitioner – with none of the support sometimes available to those in larger organisations.

These were, and still are, incredibly depressing cases. But somehow, for us as external observers, there were the normality – if there is such a thing – of mental health cases. Recent cases, however, have involved younger solicitors and trainees.

These cases tell a different story. A story about a profession that has become unable to provide a safe and supportive environment for the next generation of lawyers.

Last November, Sovani James was struck off by the High Court for back-dating letters. The SDT had merely ordered a suspension, recognising that James had suffered from anxiety and depression caused in large part by her firm’s “toxic and uncaring” culture.

On appeal from the SRA, the High Court accepted that “an aggressive, uncaring workplace could excuse carelessness” but not repeated dishonesty. And just four weeks ago, trainee solicitor Emily Scott was also struck off for overcharging clients, even though she had acted under instruction from one of the partners in the firm.

Scott blew the whistle on the firm after she completed her training contract. Although the SDT found that Scott had been “deceived, pressured, bullied and manipulated” by her superiors, the fact that she had been “working in a horrendous environment could not excuse dishonesty”.

The two partners in the Scott case, who appeared as respondents in the proceedings, were both struck off, but no action has been taken against the firm or individuals in the James case.

But these cases are more than just about young careers being broken on take-off. These young solicitors were in an environment that they could reasonably expect would be supportive – in James’s case especially.

Instead, they were worked into shadows of their professional selves. It takes courage and confidence to stand up to senior lawyers, especially those with an aura of bullying authority.

That’s not to condone what they did, but these young lawyers were worried about their jobs and their future. Then there is the SRA’s drive to set a clear red line in relation to dishonesty, which it believes should lead to near-automatic strike off.

In the grand scheme of professional things, that may be a worthy aim, but it’s a blunt approach that fails to take account of the diversity of backgrounds and levels of experience in the legal profession.

It is normal to expect a certain level of maturity from a 24-year-old trainee, but it’s unfair to calibrate their actions by reference to those of an older and more experienced solicitor.

This is especially so as the current professional environment is likely to continue to be more than less pressured. There is of course an argument that prospective lawyers should therefore start to harden themselves early, but is this really the kind of profession we want?

Experience and resilience are certainly positive attributes, but what we should really encourage is a fairer profession, where everybody can feel useful and respected. And the SRA’s role should also extend to ensuring there is a safe environment for those who start off in the profession.

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Business development & Strategy Career development Ethics, professionalism and judgement

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mental health