Solicitors’ watchdog says firms should do all they reasonably can to protect staff wellbeing
The solicitors’ watchdog has warned law firms that they could face regulatory action for imposing “wholly unreasonable workloads or targets” upon lawyers and staff.
In new guidance published this week, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) outlined its approach for when firms have failed to look after staff wellbeing.
The SRA said it had received complaints that “some firms have an unsupportive, bullying or toxic working environment and culture”, which could “impact significantly” on wellbeing and mental health.
These concerns ranged from “systemic bullying, discrimination or harassment” to ignoring complaints and “exerting pressure to take short cuts or act unethically”.
The SRA recognised that “practising law can sometimes be pressurised and stressful, involving long hours, heavy workloads and dealing with challenging and demanding clients and situations”, but firms should “do everything they reasonably can to look after their staff’s wellbeing”.
“As a regulator, we do not direct the working practices or procedures that firms should adopt,” the guidance continued. “However, we will take action if we believe that there has been a serious regulatory failure.”
Whilst a one-off complaint arising, for example, due to a single episode of bullying, is unlikely to lead to regulatory action, the SRA said it is likely to act on breaches that are either “particularly serious in isolation, or which demonstrate a persistent failure to comply”.
The SRA is likely to take action against a firm where, for example, there is evidence of “a pattern of the abuse of authority by senior staff that has been left unchecked by the firm” or a complaint of “discrimination, victimisation or harassment” not dealt with in “a prompt and fair manner”.
It will also take action where complaints of bullying raised with the firm over a period of time result in “inadequate action” taken or evidence that incidents had not been brought to light “because of the firm’s culture and/or inadequate reporting and disciplinary measures”.
Further examples include a firm pressuring staff to withdraw complaints, ineffective systems and controls, including the “failure to supervise or support staff leading to serious competence or performance issues” and “the imposition of wholly unreasonable workloads or targets”.
Alongside the guidance the SRA this week released the results of a review of workplace culture. A quarter of the 200 or so legal professionals surveyed felt their firm didn’t have a “positive culture” and highlighted concerns such as long working hours, targets, pressures from clients and workloads, and worries around reporting mental health issues and bullying behaviour.
Our own research last year showed junior lawyers in the London offices of some elite law firms are averaging 14-hour workdays.
The recent stream of junior lawyer pay rises, in some instances toppling over £160k, are widely considered to be a ‘stopgap’ to compensate for the lengthy hours.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, commented:
“In the legal sector, a poor culture can not only affect personal wellbeing but also ethical behaviour, competence and ultimately the standard of service received by clients. That’s been coming through in our enforcement work and we are concerned that some workplaces could potentially be contributing to mistakes and misconduct.”
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