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The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has shown compassion to a junior lawyer who had been found to have acted dishonestly in creating and backdating letters to give the impression a negligence case was progressing.
The young woman’s hair was falling out in clumps, she had lost weight and she was often tearful at work. Yet none of the management at the firm had noticed. She received a letter from the managing partner about her poor billing and failure to meet her target intimating that she would need to work long hours and weekends to catch up. The letter was described by the SDT as ‘harassing and threatening in tone’.
The tribunal recognised that the ‘toxic’ environment and ‘culture of fear’ at the firm and the significant pressure she had been put under to meet her billing target had led the young lawyer to cover up her mistakes rather than admit them.
This sadly is a scenario that we are very familiar with at LawCare. We get calls from lawyers at all stages of their careers who have made mistakes and are frightened to admit them, we get calls from junior lawyers who do not feel supported by their manager and are questioning if the law is for them, we get calls from lawyers who are being bullied and harassed by colleagues.
We know that making the transition into practice can be a particularly vulnerable time for junior lawyers and that an approachable and supportive management style is vital at the start of their legal careers.
The legal environment is competitive, the 24/7 culture is widespread, firms are under financial pressures and people drawn to the law are often perfectionist in their approach and find it hard to admit mistakes or that they are struggling for fear of being seen as weak or not cut out for the job. All of these factors contribute to an environment that can take its toll on the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers .We need to do something about this. Things shouldn’t get to the point where a lawyer feels the need to cover up mistakes and act dishonestly as this has widespread repercussions- for the lawyer concerned, the client, the firm and the reputation of the profession. No one should feel frightened in the legal workplace to talk to a manager or a colleague about a work matter that is worrying them, as serious as the consequences may be, the saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved ‘ is true.
And this also applies to mental health - we need an open culture of acceptance in the legal community that it’s ok to talk about how we are feeling. If this young lawyer had been able to ask for help and speak with her manager about how she was feeling, that she was finding the pressures of work overwhelming, that she needed support, she may not have landed up on the path that found her and the firm’s culture before the SDT.
There is growing awareness about the importance of mental health in the legal workplace and more and more firms are putting the wellbeing of their people at the top of their agendas. This painful case is a stark reminder of why mental health really does matter in the legal community and we hope that lessons are learnt.
Anyone in the legal profession who has made a mistake or is feeling pressured at work can call the LawCare helpline on 0800 279 6888 for support. There is also useful information on our website www.lawcare.org.uk