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Junior solicitor whose hair fell out as she struggled to meet billing targets handed lifeline by tribunal

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She claims ‘culture of fear’ drove her to fake documents

A junior lawyer rebuked for forging documents has been spared more severe punishment after she laid bare the “culture of fear” she says she experienced at work.

Sovani James, 34, found herself before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) when she forged letters in a clinical negligence case in an attempt to show the matter was progressing. This was only discovered once she’d left the firm.

At the time of her misconduct she was working at McMillan Williams, a firm with 27 UK offices in locations including London Bridge and Westminster.

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James claimed the “toxic” firm adopted a “sudden focus on financial return on employees” and an “aggressive implementation” of billing targets. These included publishing fee earner league tables, a technique that “struck particular disquiet with the tribunal”, it wrote in its decision. McMillan Williams has been approached for comment.

The judgment included a letter sent to James from a member of management, which said:

“If you are not producing the required number of chargeable units, you are not doing the minimum work required by the firm. As deficits roll forward and do not reset to zero, your target will simply increase year on year, until such point as that target becomes unmanageable.”

The email also said: “As long as you prioritise the chargeable hours, it is possible to hit the target. This may involve working evenings, weekends, Bank Holidays, or simply doing a longer day.” The tribunal described this as “crass”.

Dionne Allen, a solicitor at the firm, in her evidence to the SDT said she didn’t agree with James that the atmosphere of the firm had changed, and didn’t accept that the financial pressures put on solicitors were significant.

James’ evidence continued:

“[A]lmost daily I would be in tears due to the pressures I was under… The stress I was under was obvious towards the end of my time with the firm. I was clearly distressed and cried regularly. My hair started to fall out and I put on weight.”

James — who was also experiencing problems at home at the time — has now moved on from the firm and says she feels much better.

As for her misconduct, the SDT decided against striking James off the roll because, it concluded, the “fear of supervisors and management… was so traumatising that [James] was knowingly prepared to break the rules in order to avoid having to confront them face-to-face with the truth regarding her actions”. The tribunal said juniors “must have felt that they were carrying the weight of the world” on their shoulders. She was given a two-year ban, suspended for three years and ordered to pay £9,511 costs.

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38 Comments

Anonymous

She’s not the first, and won’t be the last.

(52)(1)

Hugo van der Meer

Was there, in fact, any remuneration involved here? This is not made clear. It would appear that ‘the mark’ was never achieved on any occasion, therefore, payment only appears to have been received on results, of which there were none. Hence the fraudulent activities. Slave will suffice. A sad indication of the spiralling into a Dickensian nightmare within the legal profession. Quill pen and penury anyone.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Dunno what rubbish your talking about but MW don’t pay well nor do they pay bonuses.

(2)(1)

Anonymous

For goodness sake, as it must be obvious that this sort of story is a runner where all young solicitors of previous good character are concerned, why have the tribunal only accepted it in this instance…?

Is it simply because of a “crass” email on this occasion where the victim could actually prove the oppression, whereas other firms have not been so stupid as to leave a papertrail ?

What about these brethren who seek election such that law society business is their newly adopted job….why can’t they say something in the right ear about a culture such as this ?

Is it because there is a conflict of interest ? The sra panel are conflicted by not wanting to bring their profession into disrepute, so they blame the young, debted solicitors for being dishonest and expel them instead.

Is that what is happening, panel members ?

Are you so desperate for status that you will make such a pact with the devil to get it ?

(28)(4)

Anonymous

You seem surprised that only allegations sufficiently backed by evidence have resulted in a verdict against the wrongdoer.

(11)(0)

Anon.

Typical partner greed. Only caring about maximising PEP and nothing else. Some horrible individuals in the profession. He should be dragged before the SDT.

(42)(0)

Just Anonymous

“…As deficits roll forward and do not reset to zero, your target will simply increase year on year, until such point as that target becomes unmanageable.”

I find this incredible.

Employers should never knowingly set their employees unmanageable targets. Never. No exceptions.

Anyone who knowingly does so is not fit to manage other people, and they should be stripped of that responsibility.

(144)(2)

Anonymous

Here here. What a frighteningly sinister letter.

(49)(2)

Anonymous

Terrible, but isn’t this just a low-rent version of the recent story here about the A&O serf in a Middle East office who was hospitalised with exhaustion? What is the PEP at this PI sweatshop?

(21)(1)

Anonymous

According to the accounts at Companies House, the highest paid director (the firm is incorporated as a company) was just over £400k in 2017, but they also seem to have personal interests in the firm’s offices, so that they are being paid rent as well, separate from their remuneration.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

No PEP because they became a Ltd in 2013. However, the ‘owner’ gets $£403K as director remuneration + £140K as contract salary + £390K in rent.

4 other directors seem to get £200K each.

Average remuneration per employee is £47K

(10)(0)

Anonymous

Disgusting

(8)(0)

Anonymous

She must have guessed that the forgeries would come to light after her resignation and that she might find herself facing an SDT action so she took a copy of the email regarding working at weekends and on Bank Holidays. Clever, as the firm would doubtless have destroyed the evidence. The culture of sheer greed which leads to unscrupulous partners sending these despicable communications to the juniors who earn the partners’ pay is reminiscent of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”. Did the SDT name and shame? Does the author of the email work at weekends and on Bank Holidays to bump up his or her chargeable time? Dream on ….
Dionne Allen is recorded on the Partners’ List as Director of Regulation, People & Standards. Her defence is unconvincing. Enforcing this type of culture is counter-productive: the decent junior solicitors will vote with their feet and staff retention rates are a good barometer of the way junior fee earners are treated.

(20)(1)

Anonymous

Dionne Allen: “I am the Director of Regulation, People and Standards ultimately responsible for overall operational control of all aspects of the Practice.”

One thing I have learned in practice is to avoid lawyers who overcapitalize. They are usually the worst.

(4)(0)

Private Solicitor

The sympathetic Ms Allen sits as a tribunal judge.

(11)(1)

Anonymous

Repulsive

(10)(1)

Warren G

In mental health! You couldn’t make it up….

(13)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t understand why people work for these awful places. There are plenty of decent firms out there.

(9)(6)

Mr Duncan Lewis

You tend not to truely know about a working culture until you are in the firm. If you have rent to pay or dependants sometimes you cannot walk away as much as you would so dearly love to.

(40)(0)

Anonymous

Once again.

“If you are not producing the required number of chargeable units, you are not doing the minimum work required by the firm. As deficits roll forward and do not reset to zero, your target will simply increase year on year, until such point as that target becomes unmanageable.”

Disgusting.

(36)(1)

Anonymous

Evil nasty PI battery chickenhouse!

Got out to do Legal Aid crime 9 years ago.

No regrets.

(25)(1)

Hugo van der Meer

All I can say is Bravo. Well done.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Future applicants take note of the Tribunal’s finding. This is the insidious culture that cares not for the law, your training, or the clients. Do not abide it.

(29)(1)

Anonymous

What’s even more worrying is these toxic working practices and environments are spreading to some chambers as well. My former set started nonsense with targets under the guise of practice development, it’s now lost 8 people in under 2 years.

(15)(0)

Anonymous

Shocking – I used this firm on a recent conveyancing transaction as well…

(9)(3)

Anon

Would love to know how the £9.5k cost figure was arrived at for this

(9)(0)

Union

Sounds like my firm. Clocking in and out, emailing billing performance to the whole team, setting targets but with no union and the SRA being totally inept in matters like this many firms act like this and worse.

(29)(0)

Anonymous

Wage slave

(5)(0)

Anonymous

How do we set up a union?

(12)(0)

Anonymous

im glad she won. brought terrible workimg cultures to light.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

Read para 60 of the judgment. Mr Smith is unfit to be managing staff.

http://www.solicitorstribunal.org.uk/sites/default/files-sdt/11657.2017.James_.pdf

(9)(0)

Anonymous

Having worked in a similarly toxic firm that saw myself and many of my colleagues succumb to mental health issues due to unachievable targets and senior management’s willingness to sacrifice the livelihoods of junior staff in pursuit of self-preservation, I can only empathise with this poor woman. No firm is worth your health.

Leaving aforementioned firm was one of the best things I ever did for my mental well-being and I wish Ms James all the best in the future.

(22)(0)

Anonymous

It is seriously concerning when people trained in the law exploit their own employees for monetary advantage. These people should be rounded up and booted out of the profession, to the extent it can still call itself a profession.

(13)(0)

Truth

There is a very interesting vibe at the firm at the moment…

(4)(0)

Truth

The only saving grace is that Mr Smith no longer has any power as there is a new CEO

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Solicitors being “crass” – what a shocker!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

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