Lapsed ethics – the impact on law firms when things go wrong

stress and ethics in law pressure gauge picture

Lapsed ethics and the impact on Law firms

All of these headlines reflecting compromised ethics are real-life examples from just a two-week window in 2019. They link through to the source if you want to read the details later. I can’t help but notice we are seeing Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal decisions around a breach of ethics on a near-daily basis.

It is true that Solicitors are held to a higher standard when it comes to ethics. The SRA Code of Conduct requires people who work in law firms “act with integrity” and “behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services”.

When ethics have been compromised

Dishonesty is taken very seriously and is likely to lead to a sanction of striking off for the individual. The recent case of Emily Scott, a trainee solicitor who was struck off despite whistleblowing about misconduct in her firm, highlights the lack of allowances made for stress when ethics have been compromised. Emily was ordered to falsify documents. Even though the SDT found she was “being deceived, pressured, bullied and manipulated”, she still faced the ultimate sanction.

When I reflect on these cases of stressed or pressured solicitors engaging in conduct which is so outside what is expected- it’s the exact opposite of the training they have had- I wonder at the circumstances surrounding this change in behaviour.

What makes someone behave dishonestly?

Of course, some people are manifestly dishonest. Some deliberately enter the profession to take advantage of clients, but they are very few and far between. What makes someone feel the only solution is to lie, falsify documents, cover up mistakes?  How can we prevent these circumstances? How can we spot it before it happens?

Here are the common issues and how you might spot them in your firm

  1. Covering up mistakes. Preventing errors in the first place, like missed hearing dates or filing deadlines is vital. This can be achieved through case management on which key dates are recorded, and monitored. Case management systems can build in alerts to supervisors as key dates are approaching, to ensure they are met.
  2. Falsifying documents to mask inactivity. This is one of the most common issues which are identified these days. No doubt because of the full audit trail of IT systems, which record creation and editing dates for documents. Running regular inactivity reports (of either time recording or document creation) will identify those files which aren’t moving. Seek those files out and check that the person dealing with them is clear on what is required. Quite often the inactivity is a sign that the fee earner is stuck, doesn’t know what to do, and is avoiding dealing with it. That usually leads to missed deadlines, and eventually claims on your insurance.
  3. Overloaded with work. As well as being stuck, we see people stressed by work overload. At times this can lead to inertia. People not able to get through the work, again leading to delay. Delays risk claims and complaints. Calculate a reasonable caseload for your fee earners (which is likely to vary depending on work type and experience). Then ensuring that the live cases stay around that figure will manage this risk. Another interesting indicator of this issue is someone working very long hours, but still only just meeting billing or chargeable time targets. All of this information is available to you. You might monitor it for other reasons but also having an eye on the potential for stress is important too.
  4. Personal issues. Many dishonesty cases are motivated by stress outside the office, financial difficulties, addictions, mental health issues. Make sure your managers are alive to these factors. Provide training for them to identify the signs of stress. Make sure you have a culture of people being able to raise issues with someone if they are struggling.

Culture matters

Above all, having a culture which encourages people to come forward when they are in difficulties is going to be the most effective way of protecting your staff from stress. And therefore protecting your firm from dealing with the consequences if that stress leads to dishonesty. Very often I advise firms to consider focusing on their lines of communication, to make sure they are open, people are listened to, and a blame culture is discouraged.

Hopefully through a combination of reviewing management information, and good communication with can catch issues before they escalate past the point of no return.

Amy Bell, Lockton Risk Consultant

Lockton PII specialists


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