As LawCare research project reveals worrying levels of depression, stress and anxiety amongst solicitors, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is coming under pressure to take action against firms that create “toxic workplaces”.
Several cases have been heard before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal which demonstrate the regulatory consequences of bad and oppressive management. The most notable case was SRA v James; SRA v MacGregor; SRA v Naylor  EWHC 3058 (Admin) which went on appeal from the SDT to the High Court. SRA v James, in particular, highlighted the intense pressure some young solicitors are put under to meet billing targets. James cracked under extreme and relentless pressure from her firm and misled a client about the conduct of their case. She was struck off but the firm apparently escaped censure. Many were outraged by this with calls for the SRA to address the problem of oppressive management styles.
These concerns have now been thrown into relief by the outcome of a major research project commissioned by the charity, LawCare, called “Life in the Law” . This found worrying levels of depression, stress and anxiety amongst the 1700 solicitors that provided input. Overall, the project found that a change in working practices and work culture is needed to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of those working in the legal profession. And this is not all about altruism – happy and well supported employees are less likely to make mistakes, stay with their firm and be more productive!
The difficulty from the SRA’s perspective in taking action has been the lack of a regulatory peg on which to hang a case against firms which operate poor working environments. Although the introduction to the SRA’s Code of Conduct for Firms expressly states that the Code aims to “create and maintain the right culture and environment for the delivery of competent and ethical legal services to clients”, there is nothing in the actual Standards to underpin this in clear regulatory form. Standard 4 of the Code of Conduct for Firms simply requires managers to be “competent” but there is no guidance on what that might mean and the SRA seems to have been reluctant to use it to in the context of imposing healthy working environments.
All that may, however, be about to change. At the SRA’s November 2021 COLP/COFA conference, plans were revealed in a lunchtime breakout session for new rules, or standards, which would place an obligation on firms, their managers and employees to treat each other with respect. Obviously, the SRA’s thinking about this issue is, at this stage, in its infancy so we have no idea of how this might convert into a requirement that is sufficiently clear to be enforceable. There will, however, need to be a consultation so this might be something worth looking out for.
For those looking for help in implementing healthy workplaces that support staff and enhance their wellbeing, LawCare has much useful material on its website. Subscribers to the Infolegal InfoHub will also find materials and resources for them to download.