The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has issued updated guidance on the issues of wellbeing and those surrounding the risks of failing to protect and support colleagues at work, setting out the main standards that apply to solicitors, and to law firms and those responsible for their culture and the systems in place within them.
The guidance, entitled “Workplace environment: risks of failing to protect and support colleagues” is designed to help law firms and those who work for them understand what new rules on health and wellbeing in the workplace mean for them.
The guidance follows the introduction of a new rule – to be found at paragraph 1.6 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms and at paragraph 1.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors RELs and RFLs – which was added earlier this month following approval by the Legal Services Board (LSB). The version in the Code for Firms provides:
whilst the version for individuals requires that if you are a manager “you challenge behaviour that does not meet this standard”. Thus it is intended to include specific obligations on both firms and individuals to respect wellbeing and to treat colleagues with consideration and not to engage in bullying, harassment or unfair discrimination. They are also intended to clarify the SRA’s approach to situations where a solicitor’s health issues may affect their ability to practise or to participate in the enforcement processes.
Before submitting the new rules to the LSB, the SRA carried out an extensive consultation which resulted in the amendment of initial proposals so as to require all solicitors to challenge any unfair treatment they witnessed. The rules now place this requirement on the top managers of firms such as partners. The new guidance also explains how the SRA expects firms to build a working culture in which more junior staff feel able to complain without fear of recriminations.
SRA Chief Executive, Paul Philip, said:
‘The legal sector can be a very fast-paced and demanding environment in which to work. While it is up to firms how they run their individual businesses, it does become a regulatory issue if poor working cultures start to impact staff wellbeing, behaviour and ultimately standards of service to the public. That is where we have a duty to act.
‘In order to make sure the public are protected, the rules also clarify the position where a solicitor’s health raises regulatory risks. This can include situations where a solicitor is too unwell to take part in an enforcement process.’
The SRA published their Workplace Culture Thematic Review last year, which found that while three quarters of respondents reported working in a broadly positive environment, there were still concerns and issues about the pressures on solicitors.
Previous research, including by the charity LawCare and the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society, had already highlighted high levels of stress, and even bullying and discrimination in the sector. There have been a number of cases in recent years where it has been suggested that a firm’s working culture has contributed to individuals, especially junior solicitors, committing misconduct.
The guidance specifically acknowledges that the SRA has received complaints that some firms “have an unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environment and culture … ranging from systemic bullying, discrimination or harassment to the failure to address such unacceptable behaviours when complaints are raised”. This, they say is the kind of environment that can “impact significantly on the wellbeing and mental health of a firm’s staff. It can also lead to mistakes and poor outcomes for clients – or serious ethical concerns, for example when staff feel under pressure to cover up problems”.
The revised guidance can be found on the SRA website.