Firms risk SDT as they fail to act on new workplace conduct rules


Bennett:

Law firms are struggling to understand the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) workplace environment rules introduced earlier this year, a leading regulatory solicitor has warned.

This is likely to result in firms and individuals appears before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal in 18 to 24 months.

Paul Bennett, a partner at Bennett Briegal – a specialist firm advising professionals and partnerships – said the profession needed to upskill its supervision of partners and staff.

He called on firms to train their supervisors regularly on supervision, coaching and mentoring to ensure that they could show the regulator that their firm’s “positive workplace culture” is being established and reinforced.

Mr Bennett warned: “Firms need to be far more alert about the revised SRA expectations on them. Despite the new rules coming into force in April 2023 about workplace culture and the publication of SRA guidance in May to support them, they are still coming as a surprise to chief executives and senior partners seeking advice when partners and staff clash.”

The regulator updated its guidance on workplace environments after the Legal Services Board approved new rules aimed at tackling law firms with an “unsupportive, bullying or toxic” cultures.

One of the new rules reads: “You treat colleagues fairly and with respect. You do not bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them. If you are a manager you challenge behaviour that does not meet this standard.”

Mr Bennett said: “Firms need to supervise effectively to ensure there is no bullying or harassment and to have systems and processes in place to prevent problems and address issues fairly…

“I fully expect to see a flurry of disciplinary decisions in 18 to 24 months’ time reflecting supervision failures, with reputations of firms and individuals tarnished by this poor understanding.”

The solicitor argued that firms needed to train all staff on the SRA codes of conduct, boost the supervisor skillset and develop their culture of supervision to be consistent across different practice areas and offices, “which means supervising the supervisors”.

“The issue of supervision has never been more in regulatory focus, but firms are struggling to adapt, as supervision training, skills development and systems all needed to be revised from April but the need for supervision beyond risk management is not embedded in the profession.”

Next month, Mr Bennett is chairing the Law Society’s Future of Work conference. He said he would speak about how firms that boost the skills of supervisors “should see the commercial uplift to this” – engaged staff were more productive, “so the historical sector-wide weakness around supervision has never made sense to me”.

See also Paul Bennett’s blog.




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