Workplace culture matters
So concluded the SRA’s recent Thematic Review. Worryingly, a quarter of those surveyed felt their firm didn’t have a positive culture and highlighted concerns such as long working hours.
The review sets out the regulator’s expectations and suggests ways firms could improve workplace culture, including:
- Use surveys to spot issues over time
- Give leaders time and resources to support people
- Offer ongoing support at all levels
- Set clear working hours expectations
- Create a no blame culture
The full review includes good practice examples, checklists and signposting to other organisations.
What are the risks of a poor culture?
The SRA’s view is that unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environments and cultures create an environment which impacts the wellbeing and mental health of staff. Mistakes are made and there are poor outcomes for clients. Serious ethical concerns can also arise as staff feel pressure to cover up mistakes (our round up of cases shows what happens in terms of regulatory action when this happens). Their guidance explains their approach when firms fail to protect and support colleagues’ wellbeing. Firms are expected to:
- have effective systems and controls to supervise staff, and monitor concerns which may affect their wellbeing and competence
- provide a safe environment for employees to raise concerns and addressing them promptly and in a constructive manner. Firms should also be aware that that poor performance by an individual could be a warning sign that an individual is working under stress or duress
- treat staff with dignity and respect to create an ethical workplace and engaged employees that create a better client experience
- have in place and implementing policies on bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation as well as disciplinary procedures for breach of those policies.
Have your say
The SRA is consulting on its proposal to impose an obligation on both individuals and firms in the Codes of Conduct to treat colleagues fairly and with respect, and not to bully, harass or unfairly discriminate against them.
The SRA is also currently consulting on reintroducing the annual keeping of the roll exercise. Deadline is 20 May 2022.
Data collected from more than 8,700 law firms in the latest SRA survey shows that diversity in the profession is still improving but there is definitely more to do.
Updated SRA guidance
The SRA has updated its conduct in disputes guidance. This includes a steer on ensuring compliance following concerns raised with it about Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation. (SLAPP).
The Separate Business Guidance has also been updated explaining your obligations if you are linked with a separate business.
In the wake of the UK Government imposing sanctions on Russian nationals and organisations, the SRA issued a press release and updated its guidance for firms and solicitors to make sure that they are complying with these sanctions. There are four key areas:
- Financial sanctions (including making reports and checking thoroughly)- this is a fast paced situation and the SRA will be starting to do spot checks on firms to assess compliance. Alerts are available if you sign up for them on Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation website
- Anti-money laundering
- Continuing to act for clients – the SRA’s view is that generally speaking firms can choose who they act for and can choose not to act for any reason (provided those reasons are not unlawful). It has said that it is highly unlikely to be a regulatory matter.
Tribunal trends and cases of interest
It’s not the crime, the complaint or the mistake but the cover up….
A ‘panicked’ solicitor has been struck off for intercepting a client’s complaint email about her and replying to it posing as her boss. We’ve touched on this before recently, discussing a junior lawyer whose career was ended over a lie about work being done when it hadn’t. Our mantra is worth repeating: “Mistakes don’t end careers, cover ups do!” Please make sure you don’t have a blame culture and your junior lawyers and other staff are confident to report mistakes and raise concerns. We’re all human!
A paralegal who missed a deadline on a litigation matter and then created and backdated a letter to conceal this error has been found to be dishonest by an SRA Adjudicator and is now subject to a control order meaning he can only be employed in legal practice with the regulator’s permission.
A legal assistant has been fined £300 and is no longer allowed to be employed in legal practice with the SRA’s permission due to her dishonesty about contacting a creditor when she had not.
Continuing this theme, a solicitor has been struck off for acting dishonestly in concealing his convictions (drink driving and driving whilst disqualified) from his employer and the SRA and sending misleading statements to them both.
Client money is sacrosanct
A manager & director of a law firm who was also the COLP & COFA has been fined £2,000 for breaches of the Accounts Rules and allowing a shortage on the firm’s client account following the discovery that an unadmitted fee-earner at the firm, had been misappropriating client funds into his own personal account.
Never buy a boat using client account
A solicitor has been fined £1,000 for transferring funds of £180,000 from the client ledger account of corporate client to a third party company for the purchase of a boat. Allowing a client bank account to be used as a banking facility is big no no!
And the AML breaches keep coming……..
An ex Mishcon partner who had not received mandatory AML training due to personnel absence at the firm has accepted a £17,500 fine from the SRA for breaches of the AML Regulations. He admitted that he failed to secure client due diligence and enhanced due diligence and permitted client account to be used as a banking facility in the tune of 1.7m.
Offensive and sexual comments
Yet another solicitor has got themselves into trouble with the SRA in the tune of a £5,000 fine for making offensive comments, this time of a religious nature to a client’s family member.
The owner of a law firm has been fined £20,000 by the Tribunal for making repeated sexual comments to an interviewee. He denied any wrongdoing but the Tribunal said it was “deeply concerned” at the comments and questions asked by the solicitor during the interview.
Unlawfully accessing and disclosing CPS files about his ex-wife’s partner has led to a former CPS lawyer being convicted and now suspended from practice for 18 months for a breach of trust, authority and responsibility.
A leading criminal law solicitor has been struck off for repeated dishonesty after asking a police station client to pay him £100 for travel costs and then claiming the money from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). He then asked the client to write a letter describing the payment as a gift. The client refused.
A law firm has been fined nearly £100,000 by the ICO for failing to secure sensitive court bundles some of which were later published on the dark web and held to ransom by organised criminals. The bundles included medical files, witness statements and names and addresses of witnesses. The firm had not used multi-factor authentication for remote access to its systems, despite this being recommended since 2018. We cannot stress enough how important it is to set up this basic security measure. It is a fairly low cost step towards achieving protection from potential cyber attacks. The ICO said infringements to data protection rules showed that the firm’s approach to data protection compliance ‘was not of an appropriate standard’.
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