The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has undertaken a review of in-house solicitors to gain a greater understanding of the issues that they face. For that review, they surveyed more than 1,200 in-house lawyers and conducted in-depth interviews with those working in both the public and private sector.
Although the review found that most respondents felt comfortable advising their employer that they could not take an unethical action, a minority struggled to balance their duties with their organisation’s priorities. It found, however, that the majority were confident that pressure from their organisation would not affect their ability to provide objective and impartial advice and that they could act ethically under pressure.
Around five percent of those who responded to the review said that they had experienced pressure to suppress or ignore information that conflicted with their regulatory obligations, whilst 10 per cent said their regulatory obligations had been compromised trying to meet organisational priorities. The review found that often this was linked to heavy workloads. Some senior leaders recognised that balancing regulatory responsibilities while maintaining effective working relationships could be challenging.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said:
‘The in-house sector continues to grow, with 8,000 more in-house solicitors than a decade ago. They now make up around a fifth of practising solicitors. The findings of this review are generally encouraging – most in-house solicitors appear to be able to serve their employers well while still upholding the high standards expected of them.
‘Yet a minority struggle. We heard frequently that heavy workloads were a significant challenge. That is a problem if it means some in-house solicitors struggle to commit appropriate time to training or careful consideration of key decisions.’
In the light of the review the SRA will be undertaking a range of work to further support in-house solicitors to make sure they – and their employers – understand their professional obligations.
The key findings from the review were:
- safeguarding and independence – whilst the majority of in-house solicitors believed they were in a good position to withstand pressures that could affect their ability to provide objective and impartial advice some believed that they did not have the support and internal controls to maintain their independence – especially where the commercial interests of the organisation did not align with regulatory obligations.
- managing risks with policy controls – many in-house teams stated that they did not have dedicated policies and controls to record and report legal risks, manage conflicts and confidentiality or instructions. In several cases there was also an over reliance on ‘common practice’ to manage regulatory issues.
- managing pressures and meeting regulatory obligations – 70% of respondents cited demands from colleagues as their biggest pressure although most felt comfortable advising their employer they could not take an unethical course of action. A minority had experienced significant ethical and political pressures including 10% who said their regulatory obligations had been compromised trying to meet organisational priorities.
- maintaining continued competence – around 10% of respondents stated that they did not have the time to maintain their continuing competence. Although most junior solicitors self-managed their training, 25% of them received no training on professionalism, ethics, or judgment within the past 12 months.
- ethical leadership and risks – in-house teams, identifying ethical risks and regulatory challenges was seen to be difficult when working under pressure and some senior leaders did not see ethics as important or did not regularly discuss these risks with the legal team.