Newly qualified solicitor struck off for fabricating time recordings

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By Rhys Duncan on

46

Lack of experience not mitigating factor


A newly qualified solicitor (NQ) has been struck off after fabricating time recordings on multiple occasions.

Matthew Nester, then a junior lawyer at the national law firm Hugh James Solicitors, was admitted to the roll in July 2021. However, just six months later, he was dismissed from the firm after filing “inaccurate” and “misleading” time recordings in January 2022.

Suspicions arose at the firm when Nester recorded several hours working on quarterly file reviews on 4 January, a task not within his job remit.

When questioned by a partner on the matter on 10 January, Nester said that he had carried out the work following a firm-wide email reminding staff to carry out reviews. On further inspection, however, the partner found that the email had only been sent the following day, on 5 January, and the document provided by Nester to evidence his work had only been created on 10 January.

A disciplinary tribunal heard that Nester had claimed four and a half hours for nine quarterly file reviews on 4 January and a further three hours of file reviews on 5 January. In total, he registered seven and a half hours of work that had never been completed.

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It also emerged that Nester recorded an hour of time on 6 January, when in fact he had only spent 30-36 minutes on the work, and another incorrect hour on 7 January.

Following an internal investigation, the firm terminated Nester’s employment on 12 January 2022. It then reported his conduct to the SRA and Nester self-reported the following month.

The tribunal acknowledged that the work in question, which was administrative in nature, was not billed to any client.

It further found that “ordinary and reasonable people would consider that a solicitor who fabricated time on a file, in order to make his employer believe that he had done more work than he actually had, was dishonest”.

Addressing the inaccuracies on the 6 and 7 January, Nester said that “he had posted his time on those days, in a hurry to complete his time recording at the end of the week”. He also mentioned that he felt “distracted from his work” throughout that week because he was working from home, and his children were also at home since their schools hadn’t reopened due to a lockdown in Wales.

In considering the appropriate sanction, the tribunal were unpersuaded by Nester’s junior role, finding:

“His actions were planned. He repeated the false time recording across a number of files, in the knowledge that he had not worked the time that he had recorded. He had breached the trust placed in him by the firm to accurately record the work that he was doing. Mr Nester was solely and wholly in control and responsible for his conduct. Whilst he was a newly qualified solicitor at the time of his misconduct, the Tribunal considered that his lack of experience was not a mitigating factor in his conduct. All solicitors, irrespective of their experience, knew that it was improper to record time for work that had not been performed.”

Furthermore, the tribunal did not consider that Nester’s circumstances were sufficiently exceptional, nor that they related to his dishonest conduct.

Bearing in mind the seriousness of the conduct, “the only appropriate and proportionate sanction” was to strike Nester of the roll, the tribunal said.

There was no order as to costs.

46 Comments

Anonymouse

Striking someone off for incorrectly recording a total of seven hours of non-chargeable time is a spectacular over-reaction.

AZAZA

Why I have a feeling that if it was a partner or a KC, the outcome would be very different….

Archibald O'Pomposity

“Striking someone off for incorrectly recording a total of seven hours of non-chargeable time is a spectacular over-reaction.”

He committed a spectacular breach of trust. Would you trust a bill from this lawyer that you had to pay?

Annoyed junior

If you’ve genuinely never seen a case of a senior solicitor at least nudging up their billable time, then you need to get your head out of the sand.
If fabricating non-billable time gets you dismissed, then adding any amount of billable time should also result in dismissal. If this was investigated thoroughly, there wouldn’t be much of an industry left, but the SRA won’t do that as coming down hard on a junior solicitor is an easy win and makes them look like they’re actually doing something.

Anon

It’s funny that the SRA are so heavy handed on these solicitors barely scraping by at high street firms but turn a blind eye to all the goings on at elite city firms.

Cravath scale

Yes, if the same granular approach was taken at elite US firms it would be the end of big law.

Anon

It’s funny that you comment without reading the article. Hugh James are hardly a high street firm, they are a national firm.

mid atlantic 6pqe

the difference here is that your partner isn’t going to grass you to up for creative billing at a us firm

TimesUp

Can we report the SRC to itself? No ‘ordinary and reasonable’ person would think someone’s career should be wrecked over something as inconsequential. Shame on them and to the firm in question.

Solicitors Disproportionate Tribunal

Entirely disproportionate and unfair decision, it seems to be another case of the SRA and SDT throwing their weight around when it comes to junior lawyers. Surely, some kind of reprimand would be sufficient here as this time was never going to be charged to the client rather than ruining someone’s career?

Alan

The commenters here need to accept that he got what he deserved. Every one doubts my comments on the dangers of working from home, but here that was used as an excuse for not undertaking work properly, and I’m sure this person’s clients will rightly wonder if they have been overcharged on their matters.

Please can this case be the end of this spurious excuse for malingering called “working” at home. There is no viable argument against being in the office five days a week, under careful supervision as long as the young generation repeatedly abuse this privilege.

Anna

You are writing out of your rear orifice

Anna

Alan, I think it’s time for your medication, at your age, is very dangerous to miss doses.

Now I’m going to go back to my job working from home 3 days a week for a US Firm in my comfortable home chair and eat lunch at a time that works for me, with no distractions, but also the ability to attend doctor’s appointments and have a schedule that allows for more of social life than when I was in the office 5 days a week.

Striking a solicitor off because of recording non-billable time wrong is… an overreaction.

Fire him, sure. But wrecking someone’s career over this is going way too far.

Catfish

You ghastly dinosaur. You belong in a 50s firm, where everyone “knows their place”, and the only women are secretaries. I’ll bet you’re one of those who mistake spectacularly ignorant rudeness for “speaking my mind”. Ugh

CD

You are an old boring git.

Anonymous

It was a situation that needed dealing with, most properly by discrete mentoring and correction ( and by demonstrative good example). However, I suspect that the spectacularly anal- retentive mindset that mediates such errors both in the firm and in the SRA will inevitably lead to the solicitors profession becoming extinct or more precisely an adjunct of some sphere of AI honed quality control engineering .

CD

Legal work should actually be done by AI.. And it probsbly could be done by AI soon.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Discreet.

Anna

I’ve seen very inconsistent decisions on this type of behaviour. There was a case a few years ago of an NQ who actually admitted to fabricating their time recordings. She was not struck off because she was suffering from mental health issues. That is despite her accepting her conduct was dishonest.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Given the circumstantial differences you highlight, how can you possibly cite this as an example of inconsistency?

Anna

“In total, he registered seven and a half hours of work that had never been completed.”

And how in the flying f*** could the SRA reach that conclusion if those hours were for file reviews?

Anonymous

I hate the SRA and the SDT.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Then you’re in the wrong profession.

nick

Following decisions like this the SRA should be required to issue clarificatory guidance. The honesty issue here was obviously the relevant factor –

however, it was non chargeable time, so the honesty was presumably similar to saying the train delayed you if you were late / or that you are in a meeting when a client calls and you don’t want to speak to them.

This non-consequential dishonesty precedent (if that’s what it is) is alarming.

Archibald O'Pomposity

“…it was non chargeable time, so the honesty was presumably similar to saying the train delayed you if you were late / or that you are in a meeting when a client calls and you don’t want to speak to them.

This non-consequential dishonesty precedent (if that’s what it is) is alarming.”

This is possibly the most obtuse comment on the site today. Do you really not understand the issues at hand? I need only quote from the judgement (which you have clearly not read):

12.12 Mr Bullock submitted that Mr Nester admitted that he had not completed the file
reviews as recorded on 4 and 5 January. Had the matter not been queried by Mr Kubiak
the clients might have been charged for work that had not been carried out, as Mr Nester had recorded the time as chargeable.

12.18 Mr Bullock submitted that members of the public expected solicitors to accurately and properly record the time spent working on a matter so that clients are only charged for work that the solicitor has actually carried out. The public would not expect a solicitor to inflate or falsely record their time spent working on a matter. The public should be able to trust that the time recorded by a solicitor was an accurate reflection of the work carried out. By making a record of his time worked which was inaccurate, misleading and in excess of the time actually worked, Mr Nester has undermined public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession and in the provision of legal services and thereby breached Principle 2. ”

Do you still hold to the analogy of making a polite excuse for declining a phone call?

Anonymous

I actually now massively under record my time because a partner quite unreasonably implied I inflated my time when I hadn’t (and despite there being no investigation on the matter). A lot had happened on the file and I did everything I was told to do. I didn’t put down a single unit above what I worked. The accusation alone led to me to drink excessively every single evening to the point of black out because I thought my career was over. I even had suicidal ideation.

Decisions like this only make false accusation anxiety worse. I’m sure others are equally as paranoid.

There certainly can be no room in this professional for people that dishonestly inflate their time, but I get the impression that Mr Nester was just disorganised and probably needed (as others have said) further training, and perhaps a good telling off.

Irl

I love how the reward for being a solicitor is feeling like you’re on trial all the time. It’s like the SRA hates us all

Anon

I’m so sorry this happened to you. It’s sadly not the first time I’ve heard it too – happened to me as a trainee at a National firm, and my friends at various international firms have experienced very similar accusations of inflating time (not true) and it’s awful.

CD

Leave the job. Go elsewhere. You are smart and have qualifications. Don’t stay at that place if that is how they make you feel. Get the hell out. You’ll feel better.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Stop making excuses for people who have made the same mistakes as you.

irl

The SRA can’t administer an exam properly, book people in assessments in their own city, give out past papers, tell course providers what they’re doing, they miss deadlines, they mess up people’s reasonable adjustments.

The entire institution needs to be overhauled. This seems corrupt and personal – seems like someone had a falling out with someone at the firm and they paid off the SRA.

Anonymous

I was really upset by this decision. If a newly qualified solicitor is under such pressure to time record that they resort to this whilst under great personal pressure, the responsibility must fall on the firm for having unreasonable expectations. If they say there is no partner in that firm who has never over-recorded time to meet targets, I would not believe them but of course the more experienced are much more subtle. If the profession carries on as it is, taking into account the vast knowledge gaps we now have in practitioners who “trained” during the pandemic, we will face a famine of good young talent coming through pretty soon.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Don’t be so silly. There will be no famine. Solicitors are paid substantially in excess of the UK median salary for their capacity to work hard, but alongside that falls a great responsibility to act with honesty and integrity. Some of the mediocrity won’t make the cut or last long after appointment. That is not a famine; it is simply a case of weeding out the bad apples.

Anonymous

WTAF?! This is the stuff of nightmares. Shocking and stupid decision. It’s non-chargeable time FFS. It’s not fraud or dishonesty. Chargeable time is totally different. Poor guy. Thanks SRA for making the profession suck a bit more.

Anonymous

Struck off for recording non chargeable time?

Have the SRA/SDT lost their mind?!

The entire profession will be struck off if that’s the route they’re taking.

Ludicrous.

Loy

I think he was done for dishonesty. After the Post Office Scandal there is urgent need to get rid of unscrupulous and dishonest people.

I read a report of a lawyer with one of the biggest law firm who deliberately made dishonest statements. He was not investigated

Anonymous

This is quite the overreaction. I’ve heard of a partner who inflates their time for billable matters and even manufactures time for work not done. They’d chase lawyers to close their time so that they could then see those lawyers’ entries and put in their own time as “briefing lawyer on xxx” when in fact there was no such discussion.

I am sure that manufactured/inflated time happens across many firms and at all levels. It just goes unreported and it seems that on this occasion the firm was out to get the NQ solicitor.

4L

I don’t condone sharp practices, including exaggerating or simply making up time recordings, in any way, but we all know in many places there is a blind eye turned to stacking hours on those files that are perceived as being able to “take it”, coupled with severe pressure on many associates to somehow magic hours out of their backside when teams are quiet. Meanwhile, partners are sometimes telling assistants they are billing too many hours even with they’re just honestly recording, simply because they will have to go through the hassle of getting that written off by another partner and/or they have underquoted to get the work through the door, then on the flip side, failing to bring enough work in and hogging the work that there is, so that they themselves look busy. You see all of this, all the time, together with systematic non-allocation of work to team members that firms want rid of.

Sending this guy on some ethics course or other and giving him a formal reprimand would have done the job to the extent it wasn’t already covered by being fired. I have commented before that there is an obsessive focus on “honesty” from the regulator, so that even relatively minor dishonesty incidents are an automatic striking-off, with no view of the punishment being proportionate to the nature of the offence. Same sanction from the regulator for padding timesheets (if you can prove it as in this case, and let’s face it, we have all encountered people who routinely inflate their hours and get away with it) that wouldn’t have made it to an invoice, as you get if you had, say, stolen client monies from vulnerable clients for your own benefit. Meanwhile, you can bully, overwork and force out more junior staff to the severe detriment of their mental health, over and over, and no-one does anything about it.

I’ll predict we will soon see the first striking-off for calling in sick claiming a cold, when in fact it was a hangover, or something of that level, because “any level of dishonesty” cannot be tolerated. Of course, it will be someone very junior who gets done for this, and not a partner who has behaved badly towards subordinates for twenty years plus but managed to keep things out of writing.

Archibald O'Pomposity

I don’t understand your point, even though I spent more time reading it than it deserved. Are you saying that drinking enough alcohol to feel ill the following day, and then phoning your manager to falsely claim that you have a virus, is a level of dishonesty that should be acceptable? If not, what are you saying?

4L

You know exactly the point I made, I imagine, but let me help you out. I am saying that that should not be worthy of a striking-off, giving the range of sanctions available, and because the punishment should be proportionate.

The SRA has decided ANY dishonesty is worth a striking-off and is not considering the seriousness or impact on clients or the profession as a whole. What is the point in having a panel consider the matter at all, then, if no judgment is going to be applied to the punishment? As someone posted above, saying your train is late when it isn’t, when you don’t want to take a call etc is also “dishonest”, strictly; perhaps that is a striking-off next. In some cases, someone being punished by their employer rather than losing their entire career is the correct sanction.

Tony

I’ve spent nearly a decade witnessing everything from manufactured time recordings to conflict issues being swept under the carpet. If recording some additional time that won’t be billed out is reason for being kicked out the industry, then entire firms could be taken down.
The regulators clearly aren’t interested in actually improving the industry or protecting clients, but instead they are only interested in making examples out of easy targets to make it look like they’re doing something worthwhile to the outside world.

Archibald O'Pomposity

In this case, the regulators removed a man from the profession who had committed several acts of dishonesty. Based on the assumption that this individual will be replaced by an honest practitioner, the regulators, by taking this approach, can only be enriching the profession. How can you possibly object to this?

Steve T

I personally have no major objection to the outcome of this individual case, but it’s frustrating that the SRA must be aware that far worse cases of dishonesty are committed by partners on a daily basis, but they won’t actively take steps to do anything about this.
No partner will ever end up in front of a tribunal for something as relatively minor as what Nester did, because no junior solicitor will end their own career by reporting it, and no other partner will report another partner for similar reasons.
The only time such a case will end up with the SRA is a partner reporting a junior, which isn’t how regulation should work.

Anonymous

Archibald O’Pomposity is the biggest a-hole on the planet.

Archibald O'Pomposity

Ad hominen attacks are a common reaction from those who have no substantive reply to an argument. Continue!

Fair treatment to human beings

A short suspension would have been equally effective in punishing and deterring.

Whatever happened to mercy.

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