No sanction for trainee who billed “in anticipation” of doing work

Time recording: Trainee not given proper training

An under-pressure trainee solicitor who billed for work she anticipated doing – in line with her understanding of the department’s practice – has not been sanctioned by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) even though she did not eventually do it.

It found that Michelle Louise Craven had meant to do the work and her conduct was most likely caused by miscommunication within the private client team of North-West firm MLP Law – where a small degree of “anticipatory” billing was allowed – exacerbated by her inexperience as a final seat trainee and a lack of training on time-recording.

Ms Craven, who qualified in July 2018, was dismissed by the firm shortly after for billing nearly £3,000 in total on nine occasions for work that was not done.

She told the tribunal that she had decided to register with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on a non-practising basis until she had put her case forward in the disciplinary proceedings.

She represented herself at the hearing and the tribunal described her as “a compelling and truthful witness”.

The private client team’s time-recording practice was different from the other departments she had trained in, where there was no concept of anticipatory time and her role in creating bills had been more limited.

In her written evidence, the then head of department, Lesley Sullivan, had described “a few units” of anticipated time as being acceptable, whereas initially in her oral evidence she referred to “a unit”.

“The tribunal did not consider that it had been demonstrated that the limits of what was acceptable in terms of anticipated billing had been clearly conveyed to the respondent,” it said.

Indeed, while the firm told the SRA that Ms Craven had breached its policies, “no documentation had been produced to substantiate this assertion”, the SDT noted.

It also accepted that Ms Craven had felt “overwhelmed” by the volume of work she had, with the team especially busy following a merger, and noted that Ms Sullivan had expressed concern for her wellbeing.

Ms Sullivan – whose evidence the SDT found “straightforward, detailed and truthful” – said she had taken measures to help Ms Craven and did not accept that her workload was ever excessive or that she was unsupported.

Ms Craven admitted that her conduct breached rules by not treating clients fairly, not being in her clients’ best interests and not amounting to a proper standard of service. However, she denied dishonesty, lacking integrity and, in breach of SRA principle 6, failing to uphold the trust the public ought to have had in her or the profession.

The SDT agreed with her: “Anticipated billing was to some, disputed, extent a minor feature of the team’s time-recording practice. The respondent’s uncontested evidence was that she had been told by a senior colleague that given the team was busy she could record anticipated time, but should not identify it as such on the time ledger.

“The tribunal accepted that the respondent genuinely intended to complete the work but had not done so due to feeling overwhelmed.”

Ms Craven had not been provided with “systematic training” in the strict limits of when and to what extent anticipated billing may be tolerated, it went on.

“Whilst the tribunal did not condone the respondent’s time recording practices which gave rise to the allegations, and considered that the most likely cause was miscommunication within the team, the tribunal did not consider that assessed in context the respondent’s conduct amounted to a failure to adhere to the ethical standards of the profession…

“Once the context was understood, a conscientious trainee solicitor who had failed to complete work as she had intended, who had had no issues with time recording in previous seats, and for whom problems had arisen in a particularly busy period in a small team in which some limited and poorly defined degree of anticipated billing was tolerated, was not conduct which would offend principle 6 or undermine public trust.”

Ms Craven put forward character references from four former MLP colleagues and her current employer.

The tribunal considered that overall her culpability was low: “The proved misconduct was essentially one mistake, which had been repeated nine times within a relatively short period at a time when the respondent was struggling to cope.”

The SDT concluded that, given the conduct had cost Ms Craven her job and had a continuing financial impact on her since, any further sanction would be disproportionate.

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