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Article | Risk Management Matters – Legal PI

Promoting a good workplace culture in the Legal Profession

Financial, Executive and Professional Risks (FINEX)
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By John Hosie | November 25, 2020

High pressure environments, such as those found in law firms, can impact employee’s mental health. Below we discuss how to promote a healthier working environment.

Introduction

Workplace culture within legal firms has been in the limelight over the last two years. There have been several high-profile bullying, sexual harassment and misconduct cases heard by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), with stress and mental health identified as a major contributor in these cases. One in six workers will experience instances of depression, anxiety or problems related to stress1, and it is no surprise that the legal profession is also facing these challenges.

Working from home, not seeing friends and family and job security have played on all our minds over the last few months, as the pressures and uncertainty created by the pandemic have impacted our mental health.

This article will focus on the issues from the perspective of the legal profession, and how the regulator is responding. As mental health issues become more commonplace in the workplace it is anticipated that this issue will only intensify as the long-term impact of the pandemic emerges.

“As lawyers, barristers and other professionals are here to solve our clients’ problems, we often think we have to leave our personal identity at the door – but there has to be a balance2” - LawCare, Supporting the legal community.

Mental Health in the Workplace

For years the physical health and safety of employees has been paramount, an approach perhaps predicated on blue collar employment that arose after the industrial revolution. As the economy has developed to a service led environment, the mental health of employees has started to become more important and prominent.

It is estimated that 70 million working days are lost each year as a result of mental health concerns.

Sadly, in the UK mental health problems in the workplace are all too commonplace and it is estimated that 70 million working days are lost each year as a result of mental health concerns, at an estimated cost of £2.4bn annually3. Importantly, the topic has now made the Boardroom agenda as senior management recognise their responsibility for creating a culture of openness and wellbeing within their law firm.

Investing time creating a supportive workplace can benefit businesses in the long term through greater productivity, better retention of staff and increased morale.

“A healthy workplace can be described as one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees4”.

Challenges in the Legal Sector

The excellent LawCare article on Mental Health in the Legal Profession5 identifies some of the specific difficulties that the profession faces; including the competitive environment and adversarial nature of the profession. In addition, the regulatory system holds the profession to a high standard. That standard has been examined recently through a number of cases seen by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), where simple mistakes have developed into disciplinary outcomes as professionals and support staff have not admitted failings.

A healthy workplace can be described as one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees4.

Matthews Case

In the ‘Solicitors Regulatory Authority and Claire Louise Matthews, Case No. 12005-2019’6, Matthews was struck off the solicitors roll after a briefcase containing client data was lost on a train. The issue being not the loss of the data as such, but that Matthews did not report the matter to her employer immediately, citing ‘an uncontrollable fear, anxiety and panic as to what had occurred’.

The SDT found that by making untrue statements to her employer, Matthews breached both Principle 2 and Principle 6 of the SRA Principles7, and that ‘The public would expect a solicitor to be honest with their employer at all times’.

It should be noted that the decision is subject to an appeal in the High Court.

This case demonstrates the importance of a working culture that encourages honesty, accepts that mistakes will happen and supports reporting of those mistakes. Employees should not fear owning up to mistakes and identifying how to prevent them in the future.

This is not the only case heard before the SDT that has attracted commentary around mental health and workplace cultures.

In July 2020, Katherine Gilroy was struck off the roll after concealing issues on a client matter8. Gilroy cited ‘significant pressure’, ‘struggling to cope with her workload’ and feeling she ‘did not have the support’ as mitigating factors.

Support for the profession

The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society (Division) has been concerned by the impact of mental health on junior members of the profession in recent years. In June 2019 the research study ‘Anxiety and Wellbeing amongst Junior Lawyers9’ was published, providing best practice guidance for employers on supporting resilience and wellbeing in the workplace. More recently the Division has considered that the SRA failed to give ‘sufficient recognition to the substantial impact of mental health issues on professionals10’.

Creating the right culture where mistakes can be openly discussed without fear of reprisal is important.

The SRA for its part has a dedicated section on its website offering guidance and support which can be accessed here. Equally the Law Society has set up a webpage which can be accessed here. The campaign #SupportingSolicitors provides a helpful flowchart on who may be able to assist depending on the issue11.

Summary

This article highlights some of the concerns around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, in particular how those concerns are felt in the legal profession and the response, including by the regulator.

Creating the right culture where mistakes can be openly discussed without fear of reprisal is important; important for staff retention, staff morale and for the long-term success and productivity of the firm.

Cases heard by the SDT where the implication is made that the law firm is not supportive, is bullying or discriminatory are harmful to the reputation of that firm and the profession as a whole.

Footnotes

1 https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/research-and-evaluation/mental-health-statistics/#workplace

2 https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/toolkit/mental-health-in-thelegal-profession/

3 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/mental-health-workplace

4 https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/

5 https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/toolkit/mental-health-in-the-legalprofession/

6 It should be noted that the decision is subject to an appeal in the High Court. https://www.solicitorstribunal.org.uk/sites/default/files-sdt/12005.2019.Matthews_0.pdf

7 https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/standards-regulations/principles/

8 https://www.solicitorstribunal.org.uk/sites/default/files-sdt/12039.2019.Gilroy.pdf

9 https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/junior-lawyers/anxiety-and-wellbeingamongst-junior-lawyers-a-research-study

10 https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/junior-lawyers/jld-welcomes-latestdecision-of-the-sdt-regarding-junior-lawyer-and-mental-health-concerns

11 https://www.sra.org.uk/globalassets/documents/solicitors/support-solicitorsflowchart.pdf?version=4965ee

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Lead Associate - Finex PI UK Legal Services

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