Law firms could face legal action over ‘unreasonable’ lawyers’ workload, SRA warns

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Lawyers’ watchdog says companies should do all they reasonably can to protect the wellbeing of staff

The lawyers’ watchdog has warned law firms they could face regulatory action for imposing “totally unreasonable workloads or targets” on lawyers and staff.

In new guidance released this week, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has outlined its approach when companies have failed to look after the welfare of staff.

The SRA said it had received complaints that “some companies have an unsupportive, intimidating or toxic working environment and culture”, which could “have a significant impact” on well-being and mental health.

These concerns ranged from “systemic bullying, discrimination or harassment” to ignoring complaints and “exerting pressure to take shortcuts or act unethically”.

The SRA has acknowledged that “the practice of law can sometimes be pressured and stressful, involving long hours, heavy workloads and dealing with difficult and demanding clients and situations”, but firms must “do whatever ‘they can reasonably look after the welfare of their staff’.

“As a regulator, we do not direct the work practices or procedures companies should adopt,” the guide continues. “However, we will take action if we believe there has been a serious regulatory failure.”

While a one-off complaint resulting from, say, a single episode of bullying, is unlikely to lead to regulatory action, the SRA said it is likely to act on offenses that are either “particularly serious in isolation, or which demonstrate persistent non-compliance”.

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The SRA is likely to take action against a company when, for example, there is evidence of “a pattern of abuse of authority by senior management which has not been controlled by the company” or a complaint of “discrimination, victimization or harassment” not dealt with “in a prompt and fair manner”.

It will also take action when bullying complaints raised with the company over a period of time result in ‘inadequate action’ being taken or evidence that incidents have not been brought to light ‘due to culture’. of the Company and/or inadequate reporting and disciplinary action”. .

Other examples include a company pressuring staff to withdraw complaints, ineffective systems and controls including “failure to supervise or support staff leading to serious competence or performance issues” and “the imposition of totally unreasonable workloads or goals.”

Alongside the guidance, the SRA this week released the results of a workplace culture review. A quarter of the nearly 200 legal professionals surveyed felt their firm lacked a “positive culture” and highlighted concerns such as long working hours, goals, client pressures and workload, and worries about reporting mental health issues and bullying behavior.

Our own research last year showed that junior lawyers in the London offices of some elite law firms work an average of 14 hours a day.

The recent stream of pay rises for junior solicitors, in some cases exceeding £160,000, is widely seen as a ‘cap’ to make up for long hours.

Paul Philip, Chief Executive of the SRA, commented:

“In the legal industry, a poor culture can not only affect personal well-being, but also ethical behavior, competence, and ultimately the quality of service received by clients. This is apparent from our enforcement work and we are concerned that some workplaces potentially contribute to errors and misconduct.

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