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Law firms could face action over ‘unreasonable’ lawyer workloads, SRA warns

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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”.

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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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26 Comments

Bob

All well and good, but the SRA will never go after the big firms where this happens commonly, they’ll make an example of the little guy, the one-man band, just to prove they have some use

(109)(2)

Former MW Trainee

Funny how the SRA have said this. Two years ago they were not interested and said that it was part of legal practice even for a trainee solicitor who was in effect earning less than minimum wage.

(40)(0)

Solicitor at national firm

As long as firms don’t think directing employees to self help online resources is a solution. Workloads should be considered both objectively and subjectively. Being asked to confirm your capacity is our way to measure that – but also … acting on that …because you see too often that someone who is performing or overperforming gets given more work than those who are underperforming. There must be fair ways to distribute work.

(15)(0)

Anonymous

In today’s ‘Meaningless headlines’…

The SRA will do frig all-its the nature of the beast

(30)(0)

Just Anonymous

It has taken the SRA far too long to wake up to this, but I am glad they finally have.

Here’s hoping that they follow this up with real action.

(14)(1)

Kirkland NQ

If you can’t take the heat, get out the kitchen. There are two types of lawyers: those who can’t handle the pressure and those that bomb around the Côte d’Azur in their lambos.

(22)(90)

Quit

I’ve read this comment before.

Do you have some kind of document full of these egoistical pseudo-aphorismical remarks?

(61)(7)

Kirkland NQ

You’re definitely the first type. I’ll DM you my suit dry cleaning instructions soon.

(5)(60)

Anonymous

Hey buddy if your law degree doesn’t work out, I can assure you, you’ll have a comfortable career writing fiction!

(9)(0)

Ohdearyme

Soo….not the best and brightest that excel in the legal profession, just those who an “hack” excessive hours/demands?

OK.

(0)(0)

Antiwoke

Are you guys seeing all the trash on law.com about how NQ salaries are “unsustainable”?

(24)(1)

Anon

What I don’t understand is why they keep attacking the associate salaries at 160k but not the partner distributions at 4 mil a pop – why aren’t “clients” complaining about those first?

(67)(1)

Trash bag at the trash shop

It’s complete trash. Opined on by people who were in practice many moons ago and are now irrelevant – or, in one case, an individual who, as a matter of fact, worked for a charity.

The ‘real’ clients, i.e the funds and other financial institutions (who in any event are the clients of those firms paying such a salary), couldn’t give a toss about how much a BigLaw associate is paid. They just want their transaction/matter dealt with asap and in good order.

The other thing is that, comparatively speaking, lawyers are paid far less than those in IB/PE or even tech. What separates law from those industries is the availability of knowledge – law firms love to boast about NQ salaries and so publish these. You can’t find that information as easily or quickly about other sectors in the city – especially those who pay far higher.

(52)(2)

Anonymous

You’ve hit the nail on the head.

(2)(0)

Ravinder Singh Chumber

Really? Good luck implementing and enforcing this.

(2)(2)

Disillusioned

Law firms aren’t supportive and nurturing environments to work in? That partners know that for every lawyer they destroy there’s another prepared to step over them? Who knew?

(17)(0)

Back to business

As someone who became a lawyer after 25 years in another career. I couldn’t believe how much bullying I experienced at the firm I trained at and lecherous behaviour I witnessed at the open days for prospective trainees, bulldogs wouldn’t have drooled aa much. The SRA is relying on numerous vulnerable trainees and juniors coming forward with their complaints before they take action. A limp effort. There should be a designated individual at every firm to monitor and report on this behaviour. It’s the only way to root it out. It’s like a pandemic.

(14)(0)

Back to business

As someone who became a lawyer after 25 years in another career, I couldn’t believe how much bullying I experienced at the firm I trained at, and lecherous behaviour I witnessed at the open days for prospective trainees. Bull dogs wouldn’t have drooled aa much. The SRA is relying on numerous vulnerable trainees and juniors coming forward with their complaints before they take action. A limp effort. There should be a designated individual at every firm to monitor and report on this behaviour. It’s the only way to root it out. Bullying is like a viral pandemic in this ‘profession’.

(2)(0)

Anna

Law is hard. Deal with it or get out. Lawyers are paid significantly more than average (if you are in a decent firm that is. If you aren’t, well your workload is probably fine anyway). You can’t have your cake and eat it.

(5)(30)

Anon

Law is easy. You work hard at a computer and occasionally have to negotiate with another lawyer, with no real risks to yourself or anyone else around you. You are paid for a certain level of intelligence and your time, not risks to wellbeing.

Saying “get out” because you believe “real” lawyers are rocks under pressure is total nonsense. Most top lawyers cannot handle real pressure, which is why they start screaming at juniors who in turn start bleating to the SRA.

(10)(10)

JAX

Lol I just shat myself with laughter. There was a high street law firm that was paying 15,000 pounds a year and the hours from Monday to Friday from 7am to 7pm, 60 hours week. You already needed an LPC at a cost of 15,000.

What do you have to say now about hours and workloads?

(5)(3)

Anna

How about stop lying?

(1)(9)

More than a paralegal

Doesn’t matter tier of law firm you go to, the workloads are the same

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Literally told everybody openly I have no capacity and I’ve been given like 8 more files

(12)(0)

Me again

Make that 13 now.a

(0)(0)

Anonymous

This seems to miss the fundamental problems… in toxic environments you can’t report bullying, poor systems, lack of support etc. You come to realise over time that concerns are dismissed and if you speak out you’re seen as a troublemaker. The only way out is to leave and find somewhere better.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

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