Law firm managers who witness unfair treatment should intervene immediately to stop it if possible, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said.
Firms themselves need to ensure they have “effective systems and controls to supervise work, and monitor concerns which may affect individuals’ wellbeing and competence”.
The regulator yesterday 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.
The SRA has also tightened up the rules on solicitors whose health problems give rise to regulatory risks, making it clearer that the regulator will intervene in these cases.
Solicitors are now explicitly required to treat colleagues “fairly and with respect”, while law firm managers must “challenge behaviour which does not meet this standard”.
The guidance says: “Where it is feasible for a manager who witnesses unfair treatment to intervene immediately to stop it, we expect them to do so.
“In other cases it may be more appropriate for the manager to take action soon after the event. This could be by raising their concerns directly with the person who has behaved unfairly. Or by reporting to another senior colleague such as the firm’s COLP, the managing partner or the director responsible for HR issues.”
The definition of “colleagues” includes not only fellow solicitors, but barristers, contractors, consultants and experts with whom the solicitor works closely.
The SRA said that, along with bullying, harassment and discrimination, failure to provide the supervision “necessary to deliver legally competent services” or “exerting pressure to take short cuts or act unethically” could be a feature of toxic cultures.
Managers should consider reporting the matter directly to the SRA in certain circumstances, such as where a challenge “is attempted but does not succeed”, where it does succeed but there are still regulatory risks or in cases involving a senior member of staff “which cannot realistically be challenged successfully within the firm”.
The requirement on firms is to “create and maintain the right culture and environment for the delivery of competent and ethical legal services to clients”.
This means, for example, having “effective systems and controls to supervise work, and monitor concerns which may affect individuals’ wellbeing and competence”.
The guidance stresses that proper supervision “is more than just checking that staff are progressing client matters”.
Firms need to making sure that, at the very least, they regularly monitor and assess individuals’ workloads and capacity, and also their competence to do the work.
The SRA said it had made further rule changes to clarify its approach to situations where health issues affect a lawyer’s ability to practice or participate in enforcement processes.
An addition to the assessment of character and suitability rules states that the SRA will “take into account anything, including your health, which indicates you are unfit to meet your regulatory obligations or to be subject to regulatory investigations or proceedings”.
The regulator can now impose conditions on practicing certificates to control what solicitors do in such circumstances.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip commented: “The legal sector can be a very fast-paced and demanding environment in which to work.
“While it is up to firms how they run their individual businesses, it does become a regulatory issue if poor working cultures start to impact staff wellbeing, behaviour and ultimately standards of service to the public. That is where we have a duty to act.
“In order to make sure the public are protected, the rules also clarify the position where a solicitor’s health raises regulatory risks. This can include situations where a solicitor is too unwell to take part in an enforcement process.”